Matthew 24: A Very Misunderstood Passage
Matthew 24 is called the Olivet Discourse. It is Jesus’ own discussion of eschatology and is often the center of criticism. In this sermon, Jesus makes the single most controversial prediction of his earthly ministry: he predicts the end of the age and says that it will occur within the lifetime of his hearers.
Obviously, we’re still here so many contend that this prediction didn’t come true. Faced with that dilemma, the leading prophecy experts (Tim LaHaye, Thomas Ice, and others) say that “generation” doesn’t refer to Jesus’ hearers at all but some far distant generation.
I read LaHaye’s book Are We Living in the End Times? (Tyndale House Publishers, 2000) many moons ago. I didn’t know anything about prophecy and only a tiny bit about hermeneutics. If I knew then what I know now, I would have realized just how poorly LaHaye’s arguments are constructed. Let’s focus just on the issue at hand: did Jesus predict that the hearers of his prophecy in Matthew 24 would see the fulfillment?
LaHaye answers that with an emphatic no. Through some hideously complicated eisegesis, LaHaye argues that “this generation” in Matthew 24:34 isn’t the hearers of Jesus’ message, but the generation alive when Israel is reformed as a nation. That happened in 1948. A biblical generation is around 30 years. Obviously, 1978 also came and went and LaHaye recognizes and addresses that problem. He says that “generation” refers to the length of the generation at the time in history when Israel reforms. People are living a lot longer nowadays and therefore 50 to 100 years from 1948 is the more likely timeframe.
Standard biblical hermeneutics teaches that the first consideration in understanding a passage is the audience to whom it is directed. Ask, “How would this audience have interpreted Jesus’ words?” And with that in mind, there is no other conclusion that you can possibly come to: Jesus meant that his hearers would see the fulfillment of his prophecy.
Again, since we are still here, that interpretation seems to present a serious problem for Christianity. After all, I’m not a Jehovah’s Witness because the founder of that organization made numerous failed prophecies. It would be a double standard to say that I reject a religion purporting the same basic message as Christianity on the basis of a failed prophecy by its founder if I excuse Christianity’s Ultimate Founder on his failed prophecy.
The trick is that Jesus isn’t a failed prophet. Let’s start at the beginning of the Olivet Discourse to find out why Jesus isn’t a failure.
Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” (Mt 24:1-2)
Here, Jesus is foretelling the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. He’s saying that it will be complete and utter, so that “there will not be left here one stone upon another.” Remember this point. The whole context of this passage hinges on the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. Jesus then goes on:
As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” And Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains. (Mt 24:3-8)
The question was asked immediately following the prediction of the Temple’s destruction, which means that what the disciples are really asking him about the destruction of the Temple and the end of the Second Temple Age. The Messiah was supposed to usher in a golden age of closer community with God. He was to do this by saving us from our sins, which are what separate us from God in the first place. The Jews believed that he would also end the oppression of the Jewish people and usher in a New World Order with him at the head of it. Jesus, however, was to be exalted as a heavenly ruler rather than an earthly one.
Notice the parallel here with the book of Samuel, when the people wanted an earthly king and God tried to explain that a heavenly king was all that was needed. The people resisted and rejected that idea. Now is the time for Jesus to fulfill that word of God, and become a heavenly ruler–not an earthly one.
He starts by warning us of false Messiahs. And, as atheists are fond of reminding us, there were many messianic pretenders roaming near the end of the Second Temple Age. Jesus was one of many, Christianity’s critics are quick to point out. And that is true. Here, Jesus reminds his followers not to be fooled by these folks.
The wars and famine that he predicts are the beginning of the birth pangs, that is, the beginning of a new age. So we have the Temple’s destruction, wars, and famines. Moving forward:
“Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Mt 24:9-14)
After the Temple’s destruction, the wars, and the famines, next we have tribulation and death for the name of Jesus. Jesus warns that apathy will increase with the increasing lawlessness, and urges his followers to stay strong and endure to the end. Salvation awaits those who do!
Next, the gospel will be proclaimed to the whole world. Only then will the end come.
So, it goes:
- Temple destruction
- Tribulation and martyrdom
- Proclamation of Gospel message to the whole world
- End of the Age
Jesus then moves on:
“So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place ( let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let the one who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house, and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath. For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. And if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short. Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you beforehand. So, if they say to you, ‘Look, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather. (Mt 24:15-28)
First, what is the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel? Let’s journey back to the book of Daniel to find that out first.
Once the abomination of desolation comes to pass, Jesus is telling his listeners to run away, and run fast. Don’t even pause to grab the stuff in your house, or the cloak waiting for you after completing work in the field.
Then Jesus warns again, more sternly than before, of false prophets. His Second Coming is in view at the end of this passage, and he says it will be very, very obvious. People will know what it is when they see it. Jesus says:
“Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all 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. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. (Mt 24:29-31)
Is this the Second Coming? Nope. But this passage does obliterate the usual notion of a pre-trib Rapture (not that I believe in the Rapture, but that’s for another discussion). Jesus says “Immediately after the tribulation . . . .” Note that he specifically says after. Then he describes a series of signs: the sun will be darkened, the moon won’t give its light, stars will fall, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. The so-called “Rapture” occurs after the tribulation, the heavenly shake-up, and the sign of the Son of Man. Finally, then we see the gathering of the elect from the four winds. Not before.
Here’s the misunderstanding: Jesus says “Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man. . . .” This has a sign in view, not the actual coming of the Son of Man. And what could that sign be? I submit it for your approval that the sign he’s referring to is none other than the specific, unmistakable prediction made at the beginning of this passage. The fall of the Second Temple, which we know to have occurred in 70.
The fall of the Second Temple is an unmistakable prophecy, and will vindicate Jesus as a true prophet. True prophets of God bat .1000 on predictions. The language associated with that passage are signs of victory, and shame for opponents. It doesn’t indicate that Jesus was expecting to return at that point, just that he was expected to be vindicated by that prophecy. This is important for the meaning of “generation:”
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. (Mt 24:32-35)
These things are the signs that the end is near, not necessarily here. When Jesus says that this generation (his hearers; there really isn’t any other valid interpretation) won’t pass away before these things come to pass, he’s referring to all of the hoopla surrounding the destruction of the Second Temple, summarized in the seven points I listed above.
Here’s where the argument comes: (7) is the end of the age, so why are we still here? Because the age that Jesus means is the Law of Moses, and the destruction of the Temple means that it can no longer be observed in its entirety. This new age is the Church Age, the age of being saved by the grace of God through our faith, rather than strict adherence to the Law. “Heaven and earth shall pass away” are not in view when Jesus says that “this generation will not pass until these things” happen. Heaven and earth passing are different animals altogether, and in the very next verse Jesus says that he doesn’t even know when that will be.