As you recall, we are in the midst of Matthew chapter 24. Jesus has left the temple for the last time; his death on the cross is only days away. His disciples have been questioning him about when the end of the age will be, and what will be the signs of his return to earth.
Jesus does not tell them an exact day when he will return, however, he does give them some signs to look for that will mark the end of the age. The difficulty comes when we try to define ‘end of the age’.
As we pointed out last week, biblical prophesy primarily concerns the people, places and events that are near at hand when the prophesy is given. However, the same prophesy will also frequently have fulfillment in future generations as well.
So, while the ‘end of the age’ certainly refers to the end of the Jewish state in AD 70, it probably also has a future fulfillment at the end of time. Let’s see what the Holy Spirit would like to say to us in this portion of scripture.
Matthew 24:15-16 – “So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand),”
In this verse Jesus gives us the next sign that will mark the end of the age. It is taken from Daniel chapters 9, 11 and 12.
Certainly, this prophesy was fulfilled close to the time it was given, and it clearly applied to the fall of Jerusalem. The abomination of desolation that stood in the holy place was the Roman army.
Luke 21:20 – And when you shall see Jerusalem surrounded with armies, then know that its desolation is near.
Why would the Roman army be considered an abomination? For one, the Jews consider them an abomination because they are Gentiles. As such, they should never step foot into the temple or any of the land surrounding it, which was also considered holy. Two, they are considered an abomination because they took Roman ensigns (flags) into the temple, placed them by the eastern gate and made sacrifices to them there. Here is a quote from Josephus, Wars of the Jews, book vi, chapter 6:
“And now the Romans, upon the flight of the seditious into the city, and upon the burning of the holy house itself, and of all the buildings lying round about it, brought their ensigns to the temple and set them over against the eastern gate: and there did they offer sacrifices to them, and there did they make Titus imperator, with the greatest acclamations of joy”.
While this is certainly a strange practice, it was normal for the Roman soldiers. They treated the ensigns like idols, worshipping them and swearing by them. For them, victory in war and conquest was the only thing that mattered. It was their god.
An alternate explanation is also offered by some scholars. The desolation may have been at the hands of a Jewish faction called the Zealots, who at one time during the war took control of the temple, stopped the daily sacrifice and drenched the holy place in blood. However, the first explanation certainly seems more in line with the words of Daniel.
Matthew 24:16-18 – “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.”
In this verse, Jesus instructs his followers that the very moment they see the fulfillment of this prophesy spoken through Daniel, they are to waste no time in immediately fleeing. This sense of urgency is conveyed in the instructions not to stop in your house to grab a coat or any other material possessions. The wise follower of Christ would hastily make his way to the city gate, never slowing down until he was free of the city and surrounding area.
The houses of the Jews were flat on top, and they frequently used these spaces for relaxation (or storage or a work area or an extra bedroom) much the same as we would use a deck. It was normal to have two sets of stairs to the roof, one inside the house and one outside.
This meant you could ascend/descend between the roof and the street without going into the house. It was also standard practice for these roofs to be built in a continuous line, so that you could pass from house to house along everyone’s roof without having to descend to the street, until you came close to the city gate. If you were fleeing for your life, this would be the quickest route out of the city.
History tells us (Eusebius, book 3 chapter 5) that the Jewish Christians did indeed flee from Jerusalem and the surrounding area of Judea. They fled over the mountains of Gilead to Pella and other places beyond the Jordan river, where they were safe from the horrors and atrocities that took place in Jerusalem.
We can’t help but see the spiritual principle here as well. When a person realizes that they are in need of Jesus as their Lord and Savior, they should not delay. If they pause to have one more good time, or wait until ‘tomorrow’ to surrender to him, they may find that it is too late! When you realize that sin and death and crouching at your door, don’t waste any time on worldly things. Turn immediately to Jesus for forgiveness and eternal life!
Matthew 24:19-20 – “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.”
This is in regards to the flight from the city into a place of safety. The window of opportunity would be very short (hence, do not stop to grab a coat or any other possessions). Pregnant women and nursing mothers would have a very difficult time moving quickly enough to escape the destruction. The implication is that they would not be able to flee, and would therefore have to stay in the city and bear the miseries of the siege. Josephus confirms that this was the case; he tells of houses full of women and children who died of starvation.
Likewise, winter weather would impede a swift exit due to cold, bad road conditions, short days, long nights, etc.
But flight on a Sabbath would be even more dangerous. You could legally travel 2 miles or less on the Sabbath. If you still lived under the old conviction not to break the Sabbath, you would not be far enough away to guarantee your safety. If you got caught violating the Sabbath by a devout Jew, you would be stoned to death. In addition, the gates of Jerusalem were traditionally closed on that day. Getting to a place of safety on the Sabbath would be tricky.
Matthew 24:21 – “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.”
Tribulation means calamity, suffering or severe affliction. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus is more specific about what this will consist of:
Luke 21:23-24 – …For there will be great distress upon the earth and wrath against this people. They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
To die ‘by the edge of the sword’ refers to being slain in war, where swords were the principle weapons used by armies. Death by the sword may have been the most merciful end, for those inside the city also faced rape, famine, disease and fire. Bodies littered the streets (imagine the smell), women ate their own children, and fanatic groups of Jews mercilessly ruled over portions of the city like war lords, mistreating their fellow Jews. There was no place to turn to for hope or relief.
Historical records (Josephus, Jewish Wars book vi chapters 2,3 and 9) tell us that approximately 97,000 Jews were taken captive during the 5 year war. The tall and handsome young men were kept by Titus so they could be persecuted and paraded around to show his great triumph. Many were distributed throughout the Roman provinces to be destroyed by lions and other wild beasts in the theaters. Others were sent to labor camps in Egypt. The rest (principally those under 17 years of age) were sold for slaves. Thus, they were indeed led captive into all nations.
It is the greatest tribulation ever. And how did this group merit such treatment? They continuously and eagerly pursued wickedness until the measure of iniquity for their nation was full. They despised and rejected the incarnate Son of God and His offer of grace. What words can describe the baseness of their actions as they put to death the very Author/Creator of life? So upon them the most violent wrath of God has fallen.
As we discussed last time, our nation has just as surely rejected the Son of God as the Jews did. Our only hope is to humble ourselves, repent and pray for our nation, seeking the mercy of God (2 Chronicles 7:14).
Matthew 24:22 – “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.”
The gospel of Matthew was written sometime between 50 and 60 AD, but probably closer to 50. Either way, the information recorded by Matthew was published years before Jerusalem was actually destroyed. Anyone who read the prophesy and believed it, had ample opportunity to save themselves and their families from this destruction. This is a testimony of the mercy of God.
The fact is, without the mercy and intervention of God, all of the Jews would be completely and utterly destroyed without remedy. The calamities mentioned above were sufficient to exterminate the entire population, wiping them from the face of the earth.
- If Satan had his way, the Jews would have been utterly destroyed. (He has clearly tried to exterminate them a number of times.)
- If God had poured out upon them the wrath they deserved, they would have been utterly destroyed.
- If mankind (Romans) were in charge, they would have been utterly destroyed.
But, hallelujah, God is in charge! Even though his judgment against them was righteous, his great mercy caused him to stay his hand, preserving yet again a remnant of his people.
Isaiah 10:22 – For though your people Israel be as the sand of the sea, yet a remnant of them shall return: the destruction decreed shall overflow with righteousness.
Despite what man deserves, God is merciful. Again, we notice that God is in complete control and his timing is perfect. His wrath must come, but at the exact moment it is fulfilled, he swiftly and surely turns the tide from destruction to deliverance.
Matthew 24:23 – “Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it.”
Here’s the deal – the Jews believed that the Messiah was going to be an earthly ruler. They expected him to come, rescue them from the Romans, and set up his kingdom. We have indicated this fact many times in past lessons. Since the Jews living in Jerusalem had rejected Jesus, they were still looking for the Messiah to come.
The horrible circumstances they were in probably made them cry out to God even more earnestly for the deliverer whom they thought was yet to come. Because of their desperate state, they were very susceptible to being deceived by Satan.
Like drowning men, they clutched at any sign that offered them a hope of deliverance. But what they grabbed onto was a lead weight. What can be more evil than false hope which shuts the door of true salvation and deliverance, while condemning one to darkness and despair?
What could be more heinous in our day, than preaching a gospel where God loves everything, approves everything and everything goes, no matter what? If we preach a weak gospel where people are not required to repent and turn from wickedness, we are offering them a ‘lead weight’ when we need to throw them a life preserver of truth! Let’s not compromise the gospel message – it’s not fair to the lost.
Matthew 24:24 – “For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.”
How did the Jews know that Jesus was the Messiah? One of the signs was that he could do great miracles. The New Testament is replete with the miracles of Christ. He healed physical ailments, cast out demons, discerned the inmost hearts of men, walked on water, multiplied food and raised the dead.
Here, Jesus tells his disciples that the false messiahs would try to imitate his miracles through sorcery, divination and magic. We have at least one example of this in the book of Acts:
Acts 8:9-11 – But there was a certain man, called Simon, who previously in the same city used sorcery, and amazed the people of Samaria, giving out that he was some great one: To whom they all gave heed, from the least to the greatest, saying, This man is the great power of God. And to him they had regard, because for a long time he had amazed them with sorceries.
Josephus tells us that there were a number of men who stepped forward during this time to claim they were the messiah. He does not give specific details about the miracles they performed.
However, Jesus warns that the signs/wonders would be very convincing. They would so closely mimic true miracles, that even true believers would be fooled, if that were possible.
This statement must have given the apostles and all true believers a sure hope – they would NOT be fooled by these false messiahs.
John 10:4-5 – And when he puts forth his own sheep, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice. And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers.
It would be impossible to persuade true Christians that Jesus is not the Christ. They are so firmly established and rooted in him, that they will recognize an imposter. This is true in every generation, from the time of the apostles until our generation.
I don’t know what false prophets or messiahs are going to come forward in our generation, but I know that if we remain close to Christ, we will hear his voice and not be fooled by those who want to lead us astray.
Matthew 24:25-26 – “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.”
Jesus is telling his disciples to be on the lookout for these deceptions, so they are not caught off guard. People will claim to have found the messiah, and try to lead others to where they can also find him – in the desert or hidden in buildings.
Notice how these imposters operate – in dark, secret places. Why? Because if they operated in the light of day, their deception would soon be discovered.
These false messiahs would covertly gather as many followers as they could, then try to launch an assault to overthrow the Romans, resulting in (they hoped) an earthly kingdom for themselves. This fed right into the false beliefs of the Jews (that the kingdom of God would immediately manifest itself in an earthly kingdom).
By contrast, Jesus always performed his miracles publicly. Crowds followed him everywhere. Entire towns were healed. There were so many people, he had to get into a boat and push off the shore in order to teach. 5000 and 7000 people were fed with just a few provisions. Religious leaders were constantly seeking to discredit him. If he were a false messiah, he could never have stood up to that kind of scrutiny.
Furthermore, his kingdom will commence as a spiritual kingdom, not a physical one. It will suddenly and unexpectedly light up the entire world, like lightening.
Matthew 24:27-28 – “For as the lightening 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.”
What is meant by the phrase ‘the coming of the Son of Man’?
Some scholars believe that it refers to his coming to destroy Jerusalem. It came unexpectedly and suddenly, like lightening. These interpreters see the carcass as representing the body of the Jewish nation which will shortly be nearly destroyed, and the vultures (your translation may say eagles), as the Roman army.
Other scholars see this as a reference to the spiritual kingdom of Jesus. The kingdom of the true Messiah will not be shut up in some hidden corner of Judea. It will suddenly and brightly be extended to the uttermost parts of the world. Just like lightening, the gospel will flow with astonishing rapidity through every part of the world. Everyone is eligible to see it and embrace its power. In this interpretation, the carcass represents the message of the death and resurrection of Christ, which cause all of his followers (vultures/eagles) to gather together and feed on the blood and body of Christ (John 6:51-53).
Matthew 24:29 – “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.”
Some scholars believe that this part of the prophesy applies only to the destruction of Jerusalem. In their opinion, the tribulation consisted of all the heinous suffering the Jews endured during the destruction of the city and the temple. The sun, moon and stars are symbolic of the temple, Jerusalem and the cities of Judah. All of them have come to ruin; their earthly glory has been shaken and eclipsed by other powers.
Others believe that this refers to the second coming of Christ. They see great tribulation at hand for all of mankind. After that horrendous period, the literal sun will be darkened or perhaps burn out. Because the sun has lost its power, the moon will also be darkened because its light is a reflection of the sun. The heavens will be so shaken, that many stars will also fall from heaven (Revelation 8:12).
This is a sign of the end of the world because as the old passes away with a great noise, it makes way for a new heaven to be revealed (2 Peter 3:10-13). In this new kingdom, Satan’s dominion will be at an end. All things will come under the authority of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:24- 28, Isaiah 24:23).
Matthew 24:30 – “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.”
If verse 29 applies specifically to the judgment of Jerusalem, then the ‘sign of the Son of Man’ is the power and justice of the Lord, evident as he visits punishment upon his people. This is a just punishment for those who stood at the trial of Jesus and said, ‘Let his blood be upon us and our children’ (Matthew 27:24-25).
If verse 29 applies specifically to the end of the world, then all nations of the world will see Jesus come to earth a second time (Acts 1:9-11), when he comes not as the lamb but as the Lion of the tribe of Judah. He will come with a sword and with power, bringing the wrath of God. He will smite the nations and rule them with an iron rod. (Revelation 19:11-16). When he does, all the people of the earth will mourn (Revelation 1:7).
Matthew Henry makes a sobering comment with regard to mourning. He notes that sinners who heed the call of the Spirit will mourn for their sin. Tears of repentance are like seeds that bear a crop of joy as we reap eternal life. Sinners who ignore the call of Christ enjoy a form of joy right now, but their day of mourning will come when Christ returns and they have no remedy for their sin. They have sown a crop of destruction.
Psalm 126:6 – He that goes forth weeping, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.
What kind of seed are you sowing? What kind of harvest will result?
Matthew 24:31 – “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.”
If verses 29 and 30 apply to the destruction of Jerusalem, then in this verse the ‘gathering of his elect’ signifies the delivering of a remnant from sin and utter destruction.
If verse 29 and 30 apply to the end of the world, then the angels are literally that – created, spiritual beings who serve God and will attend Christ at his second coming. They are spirits sent to minister to the saints (Hebrews 1:14), and God will send them with the sound of a trumpet (1 Corinthians 15:52, I Thessalonians 4:16).
The Old Testament tells us that there was a sound of trumpets when the law was given on Mt Sinai. It was exceedingly loud and the people trembled at the scene before them. How much worse it will be at the end of the world for those who have rejected Christ. When they hear that trumpet sound, they too will tremble at the scene before them, for it will signify the time of divine justice.
But for Christians of every tribe, tongue and nation, gathered from all of the four winds, it will be a time of exceeding joy and great reward.
Matthew 24:32 – “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.”
When the seasons begin to change, life will first stir in the roots of the tree, where you do not see it. The tree will begin to produce sap and send it from the roots up to the branches. This will cause the growth/swelling of the buds which will burst into life as leaves. Everyone knows that when you see the trees budding, warm weather is coming. This is a certainty, for God has guaranteed there will always be summer (Genesis 8:22).
Just as certainly, Christ will again return to this earth. It doesn’t matter that sinners will scoff at the idea (2 Peter 3:3-4), or that unbelievers will deny it. It doesn’t matter that we don’t know the exact day. The truth remains – Jesus is coming back. There is a fixed, appointed time for his return. As his children, we should be watchful and notice the signs of his coming.
We also cannot help but notice the parallel between the tree and the church. In winter, the tree appears lifeless and barren. Yet, when the season changes and the nourishing sap runs through the tree, it is transformed into a thriving, living thing that will bring forth fruit.
In the same way, the church might be considered in the throes of winter. She appears lethargic and sinful (at best) and many have pronounced her dead. Yet, the season will change. Adversity will provoke an awakening among God’s people. God will cause his Holy Spirit to begin flowing through his church, nourishing her. She will be transformed into a holy, thriving, living thing that will bring forth fruit in the proper season.
Matthew 24:33 – “So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates.”
If this applies specifically to the destruction of Jerusalem, then it means time is short when these signs appear. The destruction of the city/temple and the old Law are imminent. The kingdom of heaven has come.
If this applies specifically to the end of the world/the end of time, then time is short when these signs appear (Song of Solomon 2:13). Jesus is once again coming to earth to bring judgment for sin and reward (heaven, eternal life, etc) for his saints. He will take his rightful place as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Matthew 24:34 – “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.”
What is a generation? It can be a fixed amount of time, typically a period of 40 years. It can also be defined as all of the people born and living at about the same time, regarded collectively. For example you, and all the people you went to high school with are a generation. Your children and all of their contemporaries are a different generation. You grandchildren would be classified as a generation different from both you and their parents.
The prophesy of Jesus was fulfilled using either/both of these definitions of a generation. By 70 AD the city and temple were destroyed and the era of the Law had passed. The kingdom of heaven had arrived on earth. The generation of people who were the roughly the same age as the apostles were still around. In fact, one of the apostles was still alive to see this prophesy be fulfilled. Do you know who it was?
It was John, who was eventually banished to the isle of Patmos and recorded the book of Revelation for us.
The prophesy also has a future fulfillment. The generation that sees the signs described above should take note, for that generation will not pass until He returns in the clouds of glory. The old heaven and earth will pass away. God will make everything new. The era of eternity will begin for the believer. Praise his name!
Matthew 24:35 – “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
Jesus gives his children (including us!) a final confirmation. We can be assured that all he has spoken in this prophesy will come to pass, without fail. You can count on it!
Isaiah 40:8 – The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God shall stand forever.
Praise His Name!
Let me offer you some encouragement:
Are you encouraged by these words of Jesus? I sure hope so! God never gives us a spirit of fear, but of power, love and a sound mind (2 Timothy 1:7). Today, I am encouraged by the fact that the end of the world is not something that Christians need to fear.
For us, it will be a blessing. It will be an end to strife, death, disease, and all the other evils that come with sin. It will be a time of reward, where we will be forever admitted to the throne room of God. We will join with the saints of every generation in songs of praise to our God.
At the end of the world, all of our weeping will be turned into joy. All of our sorrow will be turned into gladness. I expect that Heaven will shatter all our puny expectations and blow our minds! So don’t fear – draw close to God and eagerly anticipate his coming!
Let me offer you some relief:
Today, we spoke of the fig tree which looks dead in the middle of winter. Maybe you think that describes your spiritual life. Maybe you are feeling a little hopeless. You want to be on fire for God, but you’re not. Maybe you are wondering how you could ever turn your situation around. Well let me offer you some relief – no one can do this in their own power!
It will take the moving of the Holy Spirit to reignite the church and fill her with power. The same is true in our individual lives. So here is what you can do: spend time in prayer. Hide the word in your heart and mind. Open yourself up to the filling of the Holy Spirit. Then, let him come into your life and fill you with power. His Spirit operating in you will cause spiritual life to flow through your being. The Spirit will transform you into the servant of God that you desire to be. He will bring about a season of life/growth in your life, as well as a spiritual harvest.
Let me offer you some strength:
Have you read the end of the book? As a Christian, you are on the winning side! The darkness will never, ever overpower the light. So stand firm in your faith. Shine your light in the darkness and watch what God will do!