Every Bible scholar agrees that Matthew chapter 24 speaks to both the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (which occurred in 70 AD) and the second coming of Jesus at the end of time. But there is little agreement on which verses are speaking to which event.
Many scholars say there is one break between the two events, with the Temple destruction being mentioned first and then the second coming. There have been multiple places, however, suggested as to where the appropriate break must be. Other scholars believe the verses about the two events are mixed together throughout the chapter. But, again, scholars disagree about exactly which verses belong in each mix.
This disagreement, I believe, has more to do with what assumptions are taken into the study of these verses than anything else. Coming to understand just a few underlying facts makes the break between the two and, therefore the lessons contained therein, straightforward. First let’s look at the questions that led to Jesus’ discourse on the matter. Jesus had been teaching at the Temple (after He had entered triumphantly on Palm Sunday) and as He was leaving the Temple area one day, we read this interchange with His Disciples.
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.” 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 end of the age?” Matthew 24: 1 – 3 [ESV]
Two questions were asked by the Disciples (when will the Temple be destroyed so that one stone will not be left upon the other and what will be the sign of your coming at the end of the age). And those two questions were answered by Jesus. The problem with assigning which verses correspond to which question is the fact that Jesus uses hyperbole and apocalyptic language when referring to the destruction of the Temple.
All of the verses about wars and rumors of wars, false Christs and the abomination that causes desolation are clearly about the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. But verses 26 to 35 are also about that time period. The comments about the sun be darkened are clear Eastern hyperbole (exaggerated language used to reinforce a point), of the type that Jesus had used repeatedly in His teachings. The verses dealing with the idea of the Son of Man appearing in the sky is clearly prophetic, apocalyptic language by which Jesus was saying that it will be apparent at that time that He is the prime cause behind the ransacking of Jerusalem and the Temple.
After having told them to flee to the mountains outside of Judea when they see all the things starting to happen that He had talked about in verses 4 to 15 (which historians such as Josephus tell us was done by Jewish Christians, as they fled to the mountainous areas in Pella near 70 AD), Jesus reminds them in verse 32 that, as when they see a fig tree’s leaves come out they know summer is near, when all the things described up to that point by Him occur, the end of the Temple is near as well.
And now we get to the two main reasons that, despite all the other possibilities, we must realize that the break between the answers to the two original questions is between verses 35 and 36. First, Jesus says that everything described before verse 34 will occur before the generation alive at the time of His speaking passes away. He even doubles down on the idea that all those things will happen by guaranteeing the certainty of His words.
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. Matthew 24: 34 – 35 [ESV]
Too many scholars have spent way too much time and mental energy trying to figure out a way that those words must not mean what they most obviously do mean. But that is an extremely dangerous line of work. Jesus said the generation to whom He was speaking would not pass away until the events of Matthew 24: 4 – 33 had occurred and that would have been exactly what He meant! Of course, the overrunning of Jerusalem and the Temple by the armies of Rome did happen during that generation’s lifetime.
The second reason is that all of the teaching about the end of time which follows from Jesus’ mouth in the remainder of chapter 24 and 25 in Matthew speak to the idea that the second coming will not be preceded by any signs but will come completely unexpected. The end of the Temple would be easy to spot and adjust to for Christians who listened to Jesus’ words and took them into account. But the end of time at Jesus’ second coming will not be predictable by anyone. So, what are the lessons of Matthew 24 concerning the second coming of Jesus?
Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. Mathew 24: 42 – 44 [ESV]
Andy’s book, Clear Vision: How The Bible Teaches Us To View The World, can be purchased here.