The Destruction of the Temple
This passage is known to scholars as ‘the little apocalypse’. Most commentators regard it as a prediction of future history until the time of the parousia. Harper’s Bible Commentary represents a moderately critical view: ‘Mark knows that history down to about A.D. 68; after that it becomes vague because it still lies in what for him is the future. Matthew, writing around A.D. 90, knows what has happened since Mark, so he is more definite about those events; the unknown future begins later in his version.’
Carson (EBC) suggests that the main goals for the interpreter in this passage are ‘to understand the most natural meaning of “the abomination that causes desolation” (v.15), the significance of “let the reader understand” (v.15), the reference to the “coming of the Son of Man” (vv. 27, 30), and the extent of “this generation” (v.34).’
N.T. Wright represents an important minority view, according to which all of Jesus’ teaching in this chapter, cast as it is in the form of vividly metaphorical apocalyptic language, refers to the events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70.
Wright thinks that there was little expectation, among Jewish people, of the ‘end of the world’. ‘Within the mainline Jewish writings of this period, covering a wide range of styles, genres, political persuasions and theological perspectives, there is virtually no evidence that Jews were expecting the end of the space-time universe. There is abundant evidence that they knew a good metaphor when they saw one, and used cosmic imagery to bring out the full theological significance of cataclysmic socio-political events. There is almost nothing to suggest that they followed the Stoics into the belief that the world itself would come to an end; and there is almost everything to suggest that they did not.’ (The New Testament and the People of God)
Carson says that ‘the disciples think of Jerusalem’s destruction and the eschatological end as a single complex web of events. This accounts for the form of their questions. Jesus warns that there will be delay before the End—a delay characterized by persecution and tribulation for his followers (vv. 4–28), but with one particularly violent display of judgment in the Fall of Jerusalem (vv. 15–21; Mk 13:14–20; Lk 21:20–24). Immediately after the days of that sustained persecution characterizing the interadvent period comes the Second Advent (vv. 29–31). The warning in vv. 32–35 describes the whole tribulation period, from the Ascension to the Second Advent. The tribulation period will certainly come, and the generation to which Jesus is speaking will experience all its features that point to the Lord’s return. But the exact time of that return no one but the Father knows (vv. 36–44)…The disciples’ questions are answered, and the reader is exhorted both to look forward to the Lord’s return and to live responsibly, faithfully, compassionately, and courageously while the Master is away (24:45–25:46).’
24:1 Now as Jesus was going out of the temple courts and walking away, his disciples came to show him the temple buildings. 24:2 And he said to them, “Do you see all these things? I tell you the truth, not one stone will be left on another. All will be torn down!”
Jesus left the temple – ‘When Matthew mentions that Jesus left the temple, and went on to the Mount of Olives opposite (3), he may have in mind not only Jesus’s withdrawal from Jewish public life but also Ezekiel’s vision of the glory of God abandoning the doomed temple and resting on the Mount of Olives (Ezk 10:18–19; 11:22–23).’ (NBC)
Blomberg: ‘he leaves their “house” abandoned—devoid of adequate leadership, true godliness, and divine presence (cf. Ezek 10–11).’
“Not one stone here will be left on another”– This prediction was literally fulfilled. Herod’s temple was the greatest architectural wonder of the Middle East, but ‘all that survived the Roman assault was part of the platform on which they were built (including the ‘Wailing Wall’).’ (NBC)
Signs of the End of the Age
24:3 As he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, his disciples came to him privately and said, “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” 24:4 Jesus answered them, “Watch out that no one misleads you. 24:5 For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will mislead many. 24:6 You will hear of wars and rumors of wars. Make sure that you are not alarmed, for this must happen, but the end is still to come. 24:7 For nation will rise up in arms against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 24:8 All these things are the beginning of birth pains.
“When will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age” – There are two parts to this question, and it is not always clear which part Jesus is addressing in the reply that follows.
“Coming” – ‘parousia’ – is used outside the NT of visits by important persons, and inside the NT (mainly) of Christ’s return.
As already noted, Wright thinks that all of Jesus’ teaching relates to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70. There was, he says, little or no expectation among Jewish people of ‘the end of the world’. Accordingly, ‘the end of the age’ should be construed as ‘the end of the present evil age’, when Jesus will ‘arrive’ as King and dethrone the evil powers that currently occupy the Holy City.
“Watch out that no one deceives you” – An important part of Jesus’ teaching in this section is to warn against a premature expectation that the end has come.
‘One of the greatest temptations in times of difficulty is to follow blindly any self-proclaimed savior who promises help (i.e., false christs).’ (Carson, EBC)
“Birth pangs” – It was frequently thought that the coming of Messiah would be preceded by difficult times – often known as ‘birth pangs of the Messiah’.
False messiahs, wars, famines and earthquakes: these have characterised all ages, from the time of Christ until now. The point is that they signal ‘the beginning of the end’, but not the end itself.
Persecution of Disciples
24:9 “Then they will hand you over to be persecuted and will kill you. You will be hated by all the nations because of my name. 24:10 Then many will be led into sin, and they will betray one another and hate one another. 24:11 And many false prophets will appear and deceive many, 24:12 and because lawlessness will increase so much, the love of many will grow cold. 24:13 But the person who endures to the end will be saved. 24:14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole inhabited earth as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come.
“Persecuted and put to death”– Persecution of Christ’s followers started early, Acts 4:1–30; 7:59–8:3; 12:1–5; Rev. 2:10, 12, and continued more or less uninterrupted.
“Hated by all nations because of me” – This chilling prospect of world-wide persecution is to lead, not to date-watching, but to faithfulness.
‘True disciples will not allow the adverse conditions to affect their love (12), their endurance (13) and their faithful preaching of this gospel of the kingdom (14).’ (NBC)
The Abomination of Desolation
24:15 “So when you see the abomination of desolation—spoken about by Daniel the prophet—standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), 24:16 then those in Judea must flee to the mountains. 24:17 The one on the roof must not come down to take anything out of his house, 24:18 and the one in the field must not turn back to get his cloak. 24:19 Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing their babies in those days! 24:20 Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath.
“‘The abomination that causes desolation'” – A reference to Dan 11:31; 12:11, where the expression is used for a pagan statue which Antiochus Epiphanes set up when he desecrated the temple in 167 BC.
Mounce reminds us that prophecy is capable of multiple fulfilment: ‘In the immediate context, the “abomination of desolation” (v. 15) builds on the defilement of the temple by Antiochus Epiphanes, is repeated when the sacred temple in Jerusalem is destroyed by the Roman army in A.D. 70, and has yet a more complete fulfillment when the eschatological Antichrist exalts himself by taking his seat in the “temple of God” proclaiming himself to be God (2 Thess. 2:3–4). In a similar way, the events of the immediate period leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem portend a greater and more universal catastrophe when Christ returns in judgment at the end of time.’
Let the reader understand – The author leaves the precise identity of this new ‘abomination’ unclear.
“…in winter” – when roads would be impassable.
“…or on the Sabbath” – when city gates would be locked and provisions unobtainable.
The Puritans used this statement as an indirect argument in favour of continued Sabbath observance. However, the point is inconclusive, since ‘even a Christian congregation not observing the Sabbath would be exposed to hardship and danger if its people attempted to flee on that day in a Jewish environment.’ (DJG)
24:21 For then there will be great suffering unlike anything that has happened from the beginning of the world until now, or ever will happen. 24:22 And if those days had not been cut short, no one would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short. 24:23 Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe him. 24:24 For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. 24:25 Remember, I have told you ahead of time. 24:26 So then, if someone says to you, ‘Look, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out, or ‘Look, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe him. 24:27 For just like the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so the coming of the Son of Man will be. 24:28 Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.
Hardly an exaggeration, if Josephus’ gruesome account of the seige of AD 66-70 is to be believed.
For the sake of the elect those days will be shortened – God is not absent even in this most horrific of events.
‘A time of chaos would offer a renewed opportunity for the sort of impostors already predicted in v 5. The fact that they could support their claim with great signs and miracles is a useful warning against drawing too hasty conclusions from alleged signs and wonders today (cf. Mt 7:22–23).’ (NBC)
“Just like the lightning” – No hint of any secrecy here: Christ’s return will be as visible as a flash of lightning.
‘The sudden and universal notoriety that there will be of our Saviour’s last glorious advent, is signified by the image of the lightning, which, in the same instant, flashes upon the eyes of spectators in remote and opposite stations.’ (Horsley)
“The coming of the Son of Man” – his ‘parousia’.
The Arrival of the Son of Man
24:29 “Immediately after the suffering of those days, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken. 24:30 Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and all the tribes of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man arriving on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. 24:31 And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet blast, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
France (TNTC) takes the view that ‘the time references of vv. 29 and 34 (and therefore also the content of the intervening verses) refer not, as is generally assumed, to the parousia, but to the coming judgment on Jerusalem.’ Verse 36 then marks ‘a deliberate change of subject, where Jesus turns from answering the first part of the disciples’ question (‘when will this [i.e. the destruction of the temple] be?’) to the second part (‘and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?’). Verses 4–35 therefore say that the temple will be destroyed within ‘this generation’, but that that event is not to be identified with the parousia; vv. 36ff. show that the date of the parousia is, by contrast, unknown even to Jesus himself, and therefore calls for constant readiness. However close the theological connection between the two events, they are thus not only implicitly but quite deliberately presented as historically distinct.’
“Immediately” – Matthew uses this word less frequently than Mark does; so when he does use it, it carries particular emphasis.
“The sun will be darkened…” – As Blomberg remarks, these cosmic descriptions are to be taken metaphorically, not literally. We ourselves might talk about ‘earth-shattering’ events.
“All the tribes of the earth will mourn” – This could mean, ‘all the tribes of the land’ (i.e. the twelve tribes of Israel). The reference to mourning echoes Zech 12:10 (cf. also Rev 1:7, and also Jn 19:37, where the application is to the crucifixion).
This mourning might either reflect sorrowful repentance, or the fearful anticipation of judgement. Blomberg thinks that the former is more likely, and, with the allusion to the (twelve) tribes, that there is a hint here of the future conversion of Israel (cf. Rom 9-11).
“The sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven” – ‘The sign’ here means ‘standard’ or ‘ensign’. This was often thought to be the visible sign of a cross in the sky, but this is a guess which gains no support from the text itself.
“They will see the Son of Man arriving on the clouds of heaven” – In Dan 7:13f ‘“one like a son of man” approaches God to receive all authority, glory, and sovereign power—“an everlasting dominion that will not pass away.” In the framework of NT eschatology, we may imagine Jesus the Son of Man receiving the kingdom through his resurrection and ascension, so that now all authority is his (28:18). Yet it is equally possible to think of him receiving the kingdom at the consummation, when his reign or kingdom becomes direct and immediate, uncontested and universal. Christ’s approaching God the Father to receive the kingdom is combined with his returning to earth to set up the consummated kingdom.’ (Carson)
Blomberg protests that ‘attempts to take the “coming on the clouds of the sky” as Christ’s coming spiritually in judgment against Israel at the time of the destruction of the temple, so that all of vv. 15–35 refer only to first-century events, have to take parousia (“coming”) in v. 27 in a way that is otherwise entirely unparalleled in the New Testament. It is much more natural, therefore, to understand Christ’s coming here to earth, as in Rev 19:11–16, when Jesus brings with him all the company of the redeemed already in heaven to join his faithful people yet on earth and still alive to meet him (cf. Zech 2:6 and Deut 30:4). All this is heralded by an angelic trumpet blast (cf. 1 Cor 15:52; 1 Thess 4:16; and perhaps based originally on Isa 27:13).’
The Parable of the Fig Tree
24:32 “Learn this parable from the fig tree: Whenever its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. 24:33 So also you, when you see all these things, know that he is near, right at the door. 24:34 I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. 24:35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
This generation – Taking our Lord’s words at face value, it is possible to suppose that he is teaching that the parousia would take place within the lifetime of his hearers (‘this generation’). If that is what he meant, then he would appear to have been mistaken.
Carson, along with others, is confident that this refers to the generation alive at that time. However, the expression has a qualitative, and not merely a temporal character: ‘this generation’ is a sinful generation, one ripe for judgment (cf. Mt 11:16; 12:41–42, 45; 23:36). According to Morris, ‘this generation’ then takes on the meaning of ‘this kind of person’ (as in a number of OT passages – Psa 12:7; 14:5; 24:6). This understanding prompts us to adopt a double (or multiple) fulfillment: A ‘wicked generation’ resisted and opposed Jesus during his earthly ministry, and such a generation will exist until the time of his return.
Chrysostom took a converse view. He too recognised that in Psa 24:6 and other places ‘generation’ referred to a kind of people. ‘What does he refer to when he says “this generation”? He is speaking not of the generation then living but of the age of believers. For he is prone to distinguish a generation not by times only but also by the mode of their religious service and practice, as when he says, “Such is the generation of those that seek him.” He said “all these things will take place,” and yet “the gospel will be preached.” These two are not inconsistent. The generation of the faithful shall remain through all things that will surely come to pass. The faithful will not be cut off by any of the things that have been mentioned. For both Jerusalem shall be destroyed and a large part of the Jews shall be decimated, but over this generation—the faithful—shall nothing prevail, not famine, not pestilence, not earthquake, not the tumults of wars, not false Christs, not false prophets, not deceivers, not traitors, not those that cause to offend, not the false brothers, nor any other such temptation whatever.’ (ACCS)
The opinion of Ryle, Hendriksen (tentatively) and some others is that ‘the generation’ refers to the Jewish people, and that our Lord is therefore guaranteeing the continued separate existence of that nation until his return.
These things – If the parousia is meant, then Christ’s words, as recorded by Matthew, would appear to be untrue. France suggests that Jesus is still dealing with the first part of the disciples’ question in v3a – “When will these things (the destruction of the temple) be?” and has not yet addressed the second part of that question, which asks about the “sign of your parousia and of the close of the age.”
In commenting on the parallel passage in Mk 13:30, the Apologetics Study Bible suggests: ‘“These things” that will happen in “this generation” are the events surrounding the destruction of the temple, about which the disciples asked. The temple was destroyed 40 years after the prophecy of Jesus, well within the lifetime of many of those present. Jesus, however, also talked about events surrounding His second coming. The two events are spoken of together because the terror of the first-century Roman invasion of Palestine was viewed as representing the terror of the days leading to the coming of the Son of Man.’
Mounce, after reviewing various suggested interpretations, favours the view that this saying admits of multiple fulfillment: ‘In the immediate context, the “abomination of desolation” (v. 15) builds on the defilement of the temple by Antiochus Epiphanes, is repeated when the sacred temple in Jerusalem is destroyed by the Roman army in A.D. 70, and has yet a more complete fulfillment when the eschatological Antichrist exalts himself by taking his seat in the “temple of God” proclaiming himself to be God (2 Thess. 2:3–4). In a similar way, the events of the immediate period leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem portend a greater and more universal catastrophe when Christ returns in judgment at the end of time.’
‘This poetic language appropriately refers to the great changes which were about to take place in the world, when Jerusalem and its temple were destroyed. It speaks of the Son of Man entering into his kingship, and his angels gathering in his new people from all the earth. The fall of the temple is thus presented, in highly allusive language, as the end of the old order, to be replaced by the new régime of Jesus, the Son of Man, and the international growth of his church, the new people of God.’ (NBC)
There is an apparent contradiction here (it seems that ‘this generation’ has passed away, but ‘these things’ have not yet happened. According to Kreeft and Tocelli (Handbook of Christian Apologetics), ‘two explanations are possible. The first supposes that “this generation” is not meant biologically but spiritually and world-historically; that is, this era, this age. A second explanation is that the prophecies of the destruction of Jerusalem and the prophecies of the end of the world are mixed together in this chapter. Perhaps one is meant as a symbol and forewarning of the other; or perhaps Matthew or a later editor just juxtaposed two discourses. The destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 did happen in the lifetime of Jesus’ hearers.’
24:36 “But as for that day and hour no one knows it—not even the angels in heaven—except the Father alone.
Carson suggests that this verse goes better with what follows (cf. esp. v42), than with what precedes it.
“No one knows about that day or hour” – ‘Day’ and ‘hour’ refer simply to ‘time’. As Carson and others point out, it is therefore ridiculous for some pundits of prophecy to claim to know the ‘year’ or even the ‘week’ of Christ’s return, even though they cannot know the ‘day’ or the ‘hour’.
“Not even the angels in heaven” – ‘ The angels, though standing in a very close relationship to God (Isa. 6:1–3; Matt. 18:10), and though intimately associated with the events pertaining to the second coming (Mt 13:41; 24:31; Rev. 14:19), do not know the day nor the hour.’ (Hendriksen)
“Nor the Son” – Mounce points out that this phrase is omitted from some manuscripts, almost certainly because of embarrassment concerning Jesus’ admission of limited knowledge. But difficulty remains, because we are still left with the expression, ‘only the Father’. ‘As the omnipotence of the Son did not come into play in the temptation scene (Mt 4:1–11), now his omniscience is veiled in a specific area. Were this not the case, the incarnation would be something less than a full and genuine entrance into the condition of humanity (cf. Heb. 4:15).’
‘All talk of signs and times now disappears, as we turn from the events of this generation to the parousia. The only thing which may be said with conviction about the time of the parousia is that it will come when it is not expected!’ (NBC)
This statement ‘is remarkable not only as the only admission of ignorance by Jesus, but also, paradoxically, because it at the same time places him above the angels and second only to the Father. This view of the status of the Son is equalled in this gospel only in Mt 11:27 and Mt 28:19.’ (NBC)
Voluntary limitation of divine attributes. ‘Christ’s words disclose his voluntary limitation of the independent exercise of his divine attributes (cf. Phil 2:6–8). Jesus was obviously not bodily omnipresent while he walked on earth. Mark 6:5 describes some restrictions on his omnipotence. Here we have a limitation on his omniscience. Christians who balk at the implications of this verse reflect their own docetism (the early Christian heresy of not accepting the full humanity of Jesus) and lack a full appreciation for the extent of God’s condescension in the incarnation and in the various human limitations he took upon himself.’ (Blomberg)
The implication is clear: if neither the angels nor even the Son know the time of the parousia, then speculation on our part is pointless.
“But only the Father” – We should not let the fact that the Son does not know about ‘that day or hour’ obscure the fact that the Father does know.
24:37 For just like the days of Noah were, so the coming of the Son of Man will be. 24:38 For in those days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark. 24:39 And they knew nothing until the flood came and took them all away. It will be the same at the coming of the Son of Man. 24:40 Then there will be two men in the field; one will be taken and one left. 24:41 There will be two women grinding grain with a mill; one will be taken and one left.
Writing in Evangelical Times, Andy McIntosh cites this verse as proving that the Flood was worldwide:- ‘Christ’s second coming will be global, so by the same token the Flood was global.’ But the expression, “As it was…so it will be…” does not suggest that the two events are similar in every respect. The context makes it clear that the similarity is not in their extent, but in their unexpectedness.
‘Two women work their hand mill—one normally operated by two women squatting opposite each other with the mill between them, each woman in turn pulling the stone around 180 degrees. The two are apt to be sisters, mother and daughter, or two household slaves. Yet no matter how close their relationship, at the Parousia one is taken, the other left (cf. 10:35–36).’ (Carson)
Wright, on the other hand, does not think that Jesus’ teaching refers to the Parousia. It is, rather about the events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70. Accordingly, ‘this doesn’t mean (as some have suggested) that one person will be ‘taken’ away by God in some kind of supernatural salvation, while the other is ‘left’ to face destruction. If anything, it’s the opposite: when invading forces sweep through a town or village, they will ‘take’ some off to their deaths, and ‘leave’ others untouched.’
24:42 “Therefore stay alert, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. 24:43 But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have been alert and would not have let his house be broken into. 24:44 Therefore you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.
You…must be ready – ‘The way to be ready is not to try to calculate the date, for that is impossible (just as a thief does not announce his time of arrival), but to be always keeping watch.’ (NBC)
‘We do not live up to our dignity, till every day we are waiting for the coming of our Lord from heaven.’ (Whitefield)
‘Christ hath told us He will come, but not when, that we might never put off our clothes, or put out the candle.’ (William Gurnall)