Some people steer clear of a passage like Matthew 24 because they find the ideas alarming or difficult to understand. This is sad and unwise for there are important truths here Christians need to know and take to heart.
As always the context gives important clues. This is Passover Week in Jerusalem where Jesus will be crucified in a couple of days. God the Son has come to His own people with prophetic warning and the offer of grace but been officially rejected. So in chs 21-23 He has with deep sorrow pronounced righteous judgement on the city and its people.
The disciples meanwhile are distracted by the magnificent Temple buildings. Jesus solemnly declares they will be flattened. When? - they naturally want to know. They assume this will tie in with His being revealed to the world in glory and the end of things as we’ve known them. How will we know when it’s time?
Well it wouldn’t be one time but two.
As we read Jesus’ response to their questions it helps to remember He’s talking about two occasions, the destruction of Jerusalem which we know happened in AD70 and His return in glory to bring this present age to its end which hasn’t happened yet.
That being understood, let’s see what we can learn from these dramatic words of our Lord in Matthew 24. Let’s actually note three things He foretells, one which has happened, one which is happening currently and one which is still to happen.
Jerusalem fell under judgement. They rejected their Messiah even though He warned them with tears. In this chapter we see His compassion for the vulnerable such as nursing mothers and young children having to flee the war zone. But, the Chief Priests, Pharisees and Teachers of the Law, those who should have known best, steadfastly refused to accept, welcome or follow Christ. They refused to repent of their selfish pride and corrupt, fruitless religion. Like a withered fig tree, it was time for Israel to be uprooted and set aside.
This speaks to us of God’s holiness. When our religion becomes a hypocritical charade to mask our actual conceit and disobedience, we’re inviting His displeasure and judgement!
But note secondly that God is true to His whole nature. While His holiness demands humbling discipline for traditional Israel, His grace extends wider than ever as Gentiles from every other nation upon earth trust in Jesus and are welcomed into God’s family. We don’t have to be Jews to be God’s people now, just followers of Jesus.
And this second part of Jesus’ prophecy is still happening as the Church takes His message in word and action to every people group on earth. While these days sadly Christianity in the West seems to be cold and formal and even dying in some places, in Asia and Africa and Latin America it is expanding rapidly! And when this great commission is finally complete we shall see the third part come to pass when our Lord returns in glory.
Jesus quotes from the OT prophet Daniel here, making it clear that His second appearing to His creation will be very different from the first. No humble birth in a stable this time or modest upbringing in an out of the way place like Nazareth. He will appear somehow to all peoples at once in clouds of heavenly majesty at the head of an angelic army. There’ll be no missing or mistaking what’s going on and nowhere to run or hide from His searching gaze.
His coming will be sudden and its consequences irreversible. Many throughout the world’s nations will mourn when they see Him, for the time of their judgement will obviously have come, but His faithful servants will be so glad for this will also be the time when we are gathered safely home to Him.
So, judgement on Israel and Jerusalem (happened), the evangelising of all nations (happening) and His return in glory to reign visibly over all (still to happen). If these are three major things Jesus predicts in this chapter and two out of three are wholly or substantially fulfilled, are there other lessons for us to see here? What sort of things does Jesus tell His followers to expect in between His first and second coming to earth?
Firstly let’s note that Jesus predicts wars, famines and earthquakes. Human conflicts and natural disasters, no shortage of troubles, distressing and confusing. At times it may feel like the end of the world but the real climax is still to come! People should take calamities as warnings of what is still to come and humble themselves before God while we still can!
Next we see real opposition to Jesus and His followers. Christians should not be surprised by persecution. Our Master tells us here what to expect. The enemy knows his time is limited so he uses all kinds of terror and subterfuge to distract, coerce and deceive and keep people away from Jesus and His redeeming love.
Again quoting from Daniel, Jesus speaks of an ‘abomination that causes desolation’ standing in the Holy Place. In the first instance this seems to refer to the Roman forces desecrating the Temple but it’s something we see repeated throughout history in many ways, the sacred things of God being treated with contempt. While idolatry and immorality are encouraged, church buildings are vandalised, Christians are ridiculed, slandered as phobic bigots, put out of work, kidnapped, beaten, even murdered. Until our Lord returns it will always be risky to come out and be identified as a genuine disciple of Jesus.
One of the most unsettling things I think Jesus says in this chapter is that right up to the day and hour He returns it will be for many folk ‘business as usual’! People will be partying, enjoying fine food and drink with no loss of appetite, falling in love and planning weddings, paying no heed to the seriousness of the situation or Jesus’ words. Popular tradition says the Emperor Nero fiddled while Rome burned in AD64 and perhaps our generation is at times like that, ceaselessly celebrating pleasure while failing to address a looming crisis!
So Jesus ends what He says here with a picture of the Church as servants who must be constantly alert and responsible. Of course we may enjoy weddings and many other good things with gratitude in this present life but we must be careful not to make such things the ‘be all and end all’ of our lives.
Instead we must very consciously have and keep this as our top priority - to be found pleasing to our Lord when He comes, actively spreading His Gospel and building His Church.
We don’t know when exactly Jesus will return. It might very well be in our lifetime. Each day brings that day closer. We must not live as though ignorant of these things for Jesus has made sure we are informed by having His words recorded and preserved for us in the NT.
We must live as those who know what is coming and concern ourselves each day about our Master’s business.
For His glory, until He comes!