Many look to the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21 as Jesus’ teaching about the end of days and His return. It can be a difficult teaching to fully understand and its interpretation varies widely. I suppose none of us will truly fully understand until that time comes when the veil is removed and these prophecies are finally fulfilled. My approach to understanding these passages is to take them in the plain sense reading in the cultural and historical context of when they were written and to whom.
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 (Gk: aión)?” – Matt. 24:3
It seems to me the disciples are asking 3 different questions.
- When will this happen?
- What will be the sign of your coming?, and
- What about the end of the age?
In Matthew 24 Jesus answers those three separate questions, though not necessarily in order of asking and not necessarily in chronological order.
When will this happen?
Clearly, the context of these verses show the disciples were asking Jesus when will Jesus’s prophecy of the temple’s destruction happen.
Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” Matt. 24:1-2
Understanding the complexity of the questions, I believe Jesus deals with all the questions on the whole and warns the disciples to not be deceived in any of these areas.
Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. – Matt. 24:4-5
He then goes on to describe the events that are about to happen prior to and the ultimate destruction of the Temple in 70 AD.
“You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.
“Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. – Matt. 24:6-14
Jesus is describing the things that will happen leading up to this fateful day, yet He is not going to give an exact date.
“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. – Matthew 24:36-41
Life will appear to be going on as normal, but that’s a deception. These days are anything but normal.
What will be the sign of your coming?
I believe Jesus now jumps to their second question.
“So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation, spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand — then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let no one on the housetop go down to take anything out of the house. Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again. If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened. – Matt. 24:15-22
These passages up to here seem to describe a time of great distress, the Tribulation period just prior to His return.
“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him. – Matthew 24:42-44
Jesus tells them to keep watch and to be prepared. While they don’t have an exact day, they do have a general idea of the period leading up to this. And, they are given one good sign indicating these things are going to happen, “the abomination that causes desolation, spoken of through the prophet Daniel” (v. 15).
Jesus then returns to his previous warning (Matt. 24:4-5) about not being deceived.
“At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is 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. So if anyone tells you, ‘There he is, out in the wilderness,’ do not go out; 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 is a carcass, there the vultures will gather.” – Matt. 24:23-28
“Immediately after the distress of 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. And 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.” – Matt. 24:29-30
And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other. – Matt. 24:31
Dispensational post-tribulationist’s see this verse (v. 31) as proof that the rapture occurs “after the distress of those days”. Pre-tribulationist’s deny this is the “secret” rapture as they call it. The church has already been raptured pre-trib and this one must refer to another rapture of the body of believers saved during the tribulation.
Some might point to these verses as describing the future rapture. But, in context I believe it describes the final days of the siege of Jerusalem, the destruction of the temple, and the consummation of the Jewish age.
What about the end of the age?
I believe Jesus is speaking here about the end of the Jewish age. The Greek word used here for “age” is aión meaning “a space of time”. The Greek word for “world” is kosmos. Read a more detailed discussion regarding the end of the world.
The common belief that Jesus was talking about the end of the world in Matthew 24 has distorted the understanding of many other New Testament verses. When we realize the disciples were asking about the end of the age of Moses, we receive clarity about many verses about the end of the age of Moses and the destruction in AD 70 that are scattered throughout the New Testament. Contrary to popular belief, these verses are not about the end of the world. (Welton, Jonathan. Raptureless: Third Edition, Kindle Edition.) For example:
There are numerous verses that speak to the nearness expectancy of the last days – God’s judgement on Israel and the establishment of the kingdom of God, not some future event thousands of years later.
Jesus declared His coming was near…
When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. – Luke 21:28
Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. – Luke 21:31-32
‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ – Matthew 10:7
Truly I tell you, you will not finish going through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes. – Matthew 10:23
From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven. – Matthew 26:64
The writers of the epistles declared His soon coming again…
The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. – Rom. 13:11-12
For this world in its present form is passing away. – 1Cor 7:31
These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. – 1 Cor 10:11
The Lord is near. – Php 4:5
Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. – James 5:7-8
The end of all things is near. – 1 Peter 4:7
Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us. – 1 John 2:18-19
And, the book of Revelation testifies to the nearness of His coming…
The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw—that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near. – Rev. 1:1-3
Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth. I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. – Rev 3:10-11
The angel said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. The Lord, the God who inspires the prophets, sent his angel to show his servants the things that must soon take place.” “Look, I am coming soon! Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy written in this scroll.” – Rev 22:6-7
None of these passages indicate a time thousands of years into the future. They speak of a time of the current generation of people. It doesn’t make any sense that Jesus and the writers to Gentiles and Jews would be speaking of anything other than what was expected to occur soon. The first century Jews were not focused on the end of the planet; that is a modern obsession that had almost no relevance to them