Jesus continues to answer the disciples' questions and predicts what will happen at the end of time when he will come again in power and glory.
Jesus continues to answer the disciples' questions and predicts what will happen at the end of time when he will come again in power and glory.
Welcome to Series 12, and Episode 3. Thanks for joining us and hopefully, you will have listened to the previous two episodes as we are going through Matthew 24 and the parallel passages of Mark 13 and Luke 21.
Introduction and Recap
We are looking at Jesus' teaching about the end times, and the judgement of Israel that was to follow after his ministry. Also, I hope you've listened to Series 11, but if not, let me give a little context so we know exactly where we are in the story before we deal with this fascinating topic today, which is 'Jesus predicting the future, the Second Coming back again'. We'll be doing the same in the next episode when there's further material on the same topic.
Series 11 tells the story of the first few days of Jesus in Jerusalem in the last week of his life, when he consciously came to the city in order to provoke a confrontation with the religious authorities over his identity. He did this by gathering a large crowd, who welcomed him into the city on the Sunday at the beginning of the week, which we know as Palm Sunday, in an event which has come to be known as the Triumphal Entry. Huge crowds are attending to Jesus and acclaiming him as he came into the city on that day. Then, the following day, on the Monday, he went into the Temple and very dramatically overturned the market stalls that were set up by the priesthood and their associates to deal with financial transactions, currency exchange and the buying and selling of animals and birds for the sacrificial system. This was a very corrupt practice which made a lot of money, and Jesus challenged it very directly. The following day, the Tuesday of that week, Jesus spent the day, as far as we can tell, in the Temple compound area, with large crowds attending. There was a series of confrontations and questions between him and the religious leaders, representatives of the Sanhedrin - the Jewish ruling council - who came and tried to ask him trick questions. Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians and others came representing the Sanhedrin.
Jesus told a number of parables to illustrate the hostility of the religious establishment to himself, and also to indicate the risk of judgement coming upon them from God for failing to believe in Jesus as the Messiah, at the time when he came to them. It had been a very tense day. Matthew 24, which is the major text which we're looking at in these episodes, is set on that same day.
When Jesus left the Temple compound, he had a conversation with his disciples and they talked to him about the amazing building of the Temple. It truly was an amazing building, which had been developed recently and had undergone refurbishments and extensions, and was really a very imposing, glorious, big building, with huge stones as the foundation. At the beginning of Matthew 24, as we looked at in the last two episodes, which I'm repeating for clarity and context, Jesus said ‘Do you see all these things?’ Matthew 24: 2,
‘Truly I tell you not one stone here will be left on another. Every one will be thrown down’.Matthew 24:2, NIV
This was a very surprising, astonishing prediction. No-one could possibly have anticipated that Jesus would say such a thing. What did he actually mean? He was prophesying a future judgement that would come on Israel. A judgment which he'd already prophesied in the previous statement at the end of Matthew 23: 36 he says ‘I truly tell you all, this judgement will come on this generation!’ Verse 38, ‘Look! Your house is left to you desolate!’ We studied those words in more detail in earlier episodes. He's predicting something very negative, a divine judgement on Israel because of this complete failure of the religious leaders to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah, and to receive him and draw the nation of Israel to follow him, and therefore provide a strong foundation for the Church that was to go to the nations. The leaders totally failed to do this. In fact, they resisted Jesus very forcibly, and their resistance is going to come to a climax in the next couple of days when they get Jesus arrested, try him in their religious court and hand him over to the Romans asking for execution.
This is the broader context. The specific context of Matthew 24, which we always have to bear in mind because this is a difficult passage to understand and many people have struggled with it - a key to interpreting it - is to work out what questions Jesus was actually answering? What issues was he addressing? That is very plainly stated in Matthew 24: 3
‘As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us”, they said, “When will this happen? And what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”Matthew 24:3, NIV
As I've stated in the last two episodes, there are three questions here: ‘When will this happen?’ - ‘this’ being the destruction of the Temple, representing divine judgement on Israel. Question number one, ‘When will Israel be judged and the Temple destroyed?’ Question number two, ‘What will be the sign of your coming?’ - a reference to the Second Coming. They knew from Jesus' teaching that he would return. The third question, ‘What will be the sign of the end of the age?’ ‘Will that be the same time or will it be a different time?’ As I've been teaching through Matthew 24, my proposal is that Jesus answers these three questions. In our first episode, looking at verses 4 - 14 we saw that Jesus sets a broad context, describing the age of the Church and all the centuries of Church life with a general picture of warfare, famines, natural disasters, pressure on the Church, international conflicts, persecution, lukewarmness in the Church as it goes forward and the Gospel being preached to all the nations. That is the general picture - a picture of struggle and difficulty which Jesus described in verse 8 as the beginning of birth pains - the birth pains of a new age - the eternal age that was going to be brought in when Jesus returned again.
The Three Questions the Disciples Asked
The first question of those three in Matthew 24: 3, the question about Israel and the Temple's destruction, is answered specifically in the next passage, Matthew 24: 15 - 21, with a key parallel passage in Luke 21: 20 - 24. We looked at those two passages together in the last episode. I propose to you that these were describing events that took place in a short period after Jesus died, between the years 66 and 70 A.D. to be precise, when there was a war between the Jewish people and the Roman Empire. A war which the Jews lost decisively, leading to the destruction of the nation, the destruction of Jerusalem, the complete destruction of the Temple, the exile of a large number of Jews to other nations, and the death of huge numbers of Jews. It was basically the abolition of their status as a nation. Their religion no longer functioned in any meaningful, formal sense after that point. This question about ‘when will this happen?’ is answered already by Jesus, and he points out in Matthew's account here, verses 15 - 21, that there would be a particular sign in the Temple, something he calls ‘the abomination that causes desolation’. That will be a trigger for the Christian community to realise that the judgement is coming upon the Jewish people.
We are now looking at questions two and three, ‘What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’ The disciples didn't know whether the destruction of Jerusalem would be at the same time as the return of Jesus Christ. We now know that certainly was not the case, and the destruction of Jerusalem was an interim event - an event that happened as part of a longer-term process. We are now going to look at that longer-term process. We are going to look at Matthew 24: 22 - 25 first of all and look at the passage in sections. Jesus uses the expression ‘those days’ probably referring to the broader period of the Church age, and particularly as it drew to its conclusion. Let's read Matthew 24: 22 - 25.
‘If those days had not been cut short, no-one would survive. But for the sake of the elect, those days will be shortened. At that time, if anyone says to you, “Look, here's the Messiah! Or, there he is!” Do not believe it. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible. even the elect. See! I have told you ahead of time.’Matthew 24:22-25, NIV
Signs of the End Time
The term ‘elect’ here refers to the disciples of Jesus, the followers of Jesus. Jesus implies that the suffering of the end times is going to increase in intensity, something that is clearly implied also in verse 8 when Jesus uses the analogy of birth pains. As we discussed when we looked at that passage in the first episode of this series, birth pains increase in intensity dramatically, just before the child is born. We have the feeling all the way through this passage, that the general description of particular events are going to increase in intensity towards the end of the process which is marked by the return of Jesus Christ. If those days had not been cut short, no-one would survive. That intensity is going to increase. The sign here that Jesus is focusing on, is that in the end times there will be false messiahs and false prophets and the remarkable miraculous powers these people appear to use. Jesus indicates that great signs and wonders, in and of themselves, are not proof that these people are representatives and prophets of God. Anyone who claims to be the messiah, or the saviour of the world, is automatically ruled out by Jesus here, because when Jesus actually comes again he'll come with a sign from heaven, with such blazing power and glory there won't be any ambiguity. People can't just go around and say that they are the messiah. There will be a public event so overwhelming that there won't be any doubt. This prediction here is that the world will enter into a period of religious confusion and distress at a time that will test the Church - false prophets and messiahs are going to come; cults will arise; false religions will arise; and people will be using power to perform miracles. The implication from what Jesus says here is that that power will not come from the Holy Spirit - will not come from God; it will be a demonic power that will confuse people. We need to be aware that this reality can exist, even in our own experience. Some of you listening to this will relate to this, and think of teachers, prophets and religious leaders in your own communities or nations influencing people and apparently having spiritual power, or wisdom or miraculous power. The critical issue for us is not whether power is being demonstrated because that can be counterfeited. The question for us is whether people point to Jesus Christ as the Saviour; and whether people preach Christ crucified, raised again from the dead; whether they preach his substitutionary, sacrificial atonement - the fundamental principles of the New Testament. When you look closely at a lot of religious teachers, you'll find they don't teach that at all. They are drawing attention to themselves, making a powerbase for themselves, making money for themselves or consciously trying to lead people away from Christianity.
The Second Coming
Let's read on. Verses 26 - 31,
‘So, if anyone tells you, ‘there he is out in the wilderness’, do not go. Or, ‘here he is in the inner rooms’, do not believe it! For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever there's a carcass, there the vultures will gather. Immediately after the distress in those days, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, the stars will fall from the sky and the heavenly bodies will be shaken. Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. Then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send his angels as with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.’Matthew 24:26-31, NIV
Here is an actual description of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. The event that has been alluded to a number of times in the Gospels is now described in much fuller terms. This is a very important scripture for us. It's going to be preceded by what you can only describe as cosmic distress.
‘The sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its light, the stars will fall from the sky and heavenly bodies will be shaken’ (verse 29).Matthew 24:29, NIV
This is a poetic statement but it does describe some cosmic distress, some sense of change and difficulty, even in the whole structure of the cosmos. We can't be sure exactly what it refers to but it appears that the coming of Jesus Christ will be public, powerful and awesome. It will be like lightning. It will be a sign in the sky, with power and great glory, and angels will appear at the same time. Lightning is a good analogy because lightning is a public event that is visible to everyone over a huge distance. That gives us an idea of what the Second Coming will be. The appearance of Jesus miraculously will be appreciated, and in some sense, seen through the glory of God being revealed all over the world simultaneously. God reveals himself through glory, a form of light and power that we see frequently in the Scriptures: the glory filled the Temple with light and power; outside the hills of Bethlehem, the angels appeared to the shepherds at the time of Jesus and glory filled the heavens - a brightness, a light; and as the Tabernacle moved through the wilderness a great bright light shone, to lead the way for the children of Israel. Something like this, something of the glory, that bright presence of God, is going to be felt by humanity all over the world in some mysterious way that we can't fully understand, but we'll certainly know when we experience it. That will be the coming of Jesus. He himself will become visible on the earth. His person. We'll see him personally, with great power and glory. It is difficult to speculate further as to how Jesus will appear. It is beyond our understanding, something we have no experience of. But the language used in this passage is unambiguous. This is a public event; this is a powerful event; this is an event filled with awe and glory of God; and this is an event that we can't escape.
We will have to engage with Jesus Christ at the moment that he returns to the earth. That's why we need to be aware here that humanity will be divided. All the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. That mourning, regret, fear, and fearful anticipation of judgement will come upon people. That will be a terrifying reality because the God that they've been running away from is now appearing in their lives unmistakably with power, and is going to hold them to account for their lives. That will bring mourning and grief to humanity but for the elect, believers in Jesus Christ, there will be an opposite response - there will be joy and anticipation. The angels will go and gather the believers from all corners of the earth.
Again, these are very hard things to fully understand, and I'm proposing that we don't try and understand them more fully than the text allows. We need to be clear: these are concrete realities that we are talking about. How it will actually work out, how it will feel at that moment, is beyond my capacity to understand or to explain fully but we can say unambiguously: Jesus is returning again to this world, at an unknown time in the future, after distressing times on the earth, times of tribulation and difficulty, in which the Church will be suffering particularly. He will come with great power and glory to redeem his followers, and to hold to account the rest of humanity.
‘Where there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather’. That's an interesting statement, isn't it? Whenever you see vultures, you know there is a carcass. Basically, the point of this metaphor is to say that one thing follows another with certainty. The tribulation will be followed by the Second Coming in the same way that the death of animals is followed by the coming of vultures. One thing follows the other with certainty. Difficulties and tribulations that Christians may experience do not mean that God has abandoned them. Jesus is coming to rescue his Church, to appear publicly to humanity.
The Lesson of the Fig Tree
Now we come to the final section of our passage today, Matthew 24: 32 - 35,
‘Now learn this lesson from the fig tree. As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. Truly, I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.’Matthew 24:32-35, NIV
There has been much discussion amongst Bible teachers and scholars about which generation is being referred to here. When it says, ‘this generation’, there are two possibilities. This may be referring back to some of the things Jesus said about the first generation of believers and the destruction of the Temple of Israel, or it may be referring to the generation that exists at the time of the Second Coming and the events of tribulation that immediately precede it. I think the second interpretation is more persuasive. I think ‘these things’ refer to the events of the Second Coming and everything that precedes it immediately. I think ‘this generation’ refers to the people who experience that era of history, and that's still a time to come; it hasn't happened yet. Those who experience the acceleration of tribulation, the final phase of the birth pains - to go back to Matthew 24: 8, the final events of those days - Matthew 24: 22. Those people will certainly not pass away until they see the Second Coming.
Jesus ends by saying, ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away’, so the authority of what Jesus says is emphasised here. His predictions are to be relied upon. We have come quite a significant way through Matthew 24, and as far as we've got, we've understood that there were three questions asked by the disciples. One was about the destruction of the Temple and judgement on Israel; the second one was about the Second Coming; and the third one was about the end of the age. It appears from what we have studied so far, that in verses 4 - 14, Jesus presents a general picture of the age of the Church, pointing out that signs of distress and difficulty in the earth and for the Church, will increase during that period, just like birth pains increase. Then, from verse 15 - 21, with a parallel in Luke 21: 20 - 24 in our second episode, I'm proposing that here Jesus answered the question about the destruction of the Temple, and pointed out that at the time when that takes place there should be an attempt by the Church to get away from the conflict which turns out to be a conflict between the Jews and the Imperial Roman armies, as we described in some detail in the last episode, and quoting also from a historian at the time who described the events as an eyewitness.
Then, in this episode from verse 22 all the way through to 35, I'm proposing that this refers to the events immediately preceding and including the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. We see an intensification of suffering, verse 22, days need to be shortened because conditions in the world are getting severe and difficult. That crisis is overcome by the sudden, unexpected appearance of Jesus Christ in power and glory. This is a public event, the public appearance of Jesus Christ, which will be perceived equally by believers and unbelievers. This tells us, by the way, that we are not to anticipate any secret rapture. There is nothing in this text which suggests to us that the Church will be taken away from the suffering in the world in the last days. Rather, suffering will be shortened so that the Church can come through triumphantly as it awaits Jesus Christ. I'll say a little bit more on that topic in subsequent episodes, as we look at further material in Matthew 24 and Matthew 25.
My final reflections would be that the words of Jesus in verse 25 are helpful to us. He says. ‘I have told you ahead of time’, so this passage should help us. The section about the destruction of Jerusalem and the judgement on Israel has been fulfilled but the rest of Matthew 24 has significant relevance for us. The early passage describes many things that we experience - verses 4 - 14 and verses 22 - 35 tell us a lot about things that are to come, which we must prepare for. This passage also makes clear that we are awaiting the Second Coming as a major reality for Christians. This is not some vague future hope. This is a major reality. We are building our lives towards Jesus returning again. If we die before he returns, other Scriptures tell us that we will return with him to this world, in order to rule with him, and to participate with him in the bringing in of the full dimensions of his Kingdom. Therefore, it is urgent that we respond to Jesus Christ before he returns because when he returns, he comes in judgement. The door of opportunity closes.
It's interesting that Jesus takes here the title of the Son of Man, a title that you will have noticed Jesus using throughout the Gospels. The primary reference in the Old Testament to this title is helpful for us in this context. It comes in Daniel 7: 13 - 14, where Daniel in a prophetic vision, sees the following,
‘In my vision at night, I looked and there before me was one like a Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days, and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power. All nations and peoples of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed’.Daniel 7:13-14, NIV
Daniel saw prophetically that God Almighty - the Ancient of Days - would appoint a man, a Son of Man, who was also a divine person. He would give him authority, glory and sovereign power to rule the world and to establish God's Kingdom. That person is Jesus Christ. He is truly the Son of Man, the divine Son of Man, whose glory and reign and power will be magnificently demonstrated when he returns again at his second coming. For us, our responsibility is to understand this reality and to anticipate it; to pray ‘your Kingdom come’ on a regular basis, and to live our lives for that Kingdom in a faithful way until he returns for the Second Coming.
The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.
- How do you view the signs and wonders of Jesus?
- Consider the powerful leaders, teachers and prophets in your community. Are they pointing to Jesus? Are you?
- In the light of the Second Coming, how can you present the idea of judgement to non-believers?