Sorting Out Matthew 24
by Anthony Buzzard
A glance at the commentaries shows that there has been little agreement about what Jesus said in Matthew 24. What he intended to convey was information about events destined to happen in Judea: "Behold, I have told you in advance" (Matt. 24:25). But how well has he been understood? The radical skeptic thinks the Church made up the whole story after the fall of Jerusalem and put it on the lips of Jesus. This would give the impression that Jesus had made a prediction! But the prediction would not have the authority of Jesus behind it - just the enthusiastic guesses of his followers!
Some are persuaded that Jesus did not see beyond A.D. 70, and that the end of the age and even the second coming happened then. Others sense that there is more to the description of his "coming with power and great glory" than can possibly be squared with events in A.D. 70. But the problem is: Jesus speaks of a terrible time of distress in connection with Jerusalem, to be followed immediately (v. 29) by his appearance in glory. How can Jesus have spoken of the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and of his coming immediately after that? One reaction has been to accuse Jesus of being mistaken about the time of his coming. Another is that Matthew wrongly edited the words of Jesus and thus misrepresented Jesus' mind.
All this is unsatisfactory and confusing. How shall we resolve the difficulties?
Quite simply: by following the sequence Jesus gave and believing it! Truth is often simple, and there is a straightforward structure to Jesus' prediction of the future. It looks like this:
When you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel standing in the holy place flee to the mountains For then shall be great tribulation Immediately after the tribulation of those days [Mark 13:24, "In those days, after that tribulation"] the sun will be darkened and then they will see the Son of man coming in power And he shall send forth his angels to gather the elect (Matt. 24:15, 16, 21, 30, 31).
Attempts to explain this material have often foundered and failed for one basic reason. The critically important connecting time expressions have been ignored or explained away. In this way Jesus' message has been distorted. Vitally important is the adverb "immediately" in verse 29. This links the great tribulation of verses 15-24 with the cosmic signs of verse 29 and the second coming which follows. These events occur in quick succession. They are not long drawn-out processes stretching over thousands of years.
Commenting on verse 29, "immediately after," A.H. McNeile, former professor of theology at Cambridge, says: "This verse is the true sequel to verse 15. The tribulation (v. 21) is the climax of the birthpangs (v. 8) being followed immediately by the end. In Mark, too, the tribulation and the second coming are in those days, i.e., they are successive events in the same period...The tribulation will be terrible, but the Parousia [Second Coming] will follow it at once."1 There is no gap between the tribulation, the heavenly signs, and the second coming. It follows, then, that the concentrated time of trouble Jesus described did not happen in A.D. 70. No cosmic signs followed that event immediately. Nor did Jesus come back.
Confirming Our Findings
There are two ways of confirming the simple series of events which Jesus says will happen in quick succession: tribulation, heavenly signs, second coming. Firstly, in verse 14 we read of "the end": "This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world as a witness to the nations; and then the end shall come." Now observe verse 15: "When you therefore see the abomination of desolation which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet standing in the holy place (let the reader understand) " The little Greek word translated "therefore" connects the abomination of desolation with the end referred to in verse 14. 2 This confirms what we have already seen: that the abomination of desolation is a feature of the end of the age. Its appearance triggers the awful time of trouble which precedes Jesus' arrival. The abomination of desolation signals the approaching end of the age - the return of Jesus.
Secondly, confirmation of Jesus' simple scheme for the future is found in Daniel. Here we follow Jesus' instructions carefully. The abomination of desolation is the one described by Daniel (Matt. 24:15). The precise expression "abomination of desolation" occurs in Daniel 11:31 with a further reference to its appearance in the holy place in Daniel 12:11. Daniel 9:27 contains a third slightly less direct reference. In all three cases (cp. also Dan. 8:13) Daniel describes a final evil ruler, King of the North (from the region of Mesopotamia), who sets himself (or his image) up as "the abomination of desolation" and puts an end to temple sacrifices (Dan. 11:31). It is crucially important to see that in Daniel 12:11 about three and a half years will elapse between the appearance of the abomination of desolation and the end of the age. Jesus is merely elaborating (in Matt. 24) what was already laid out by Daniel: abomination of desolation (Dan. 11:31; Matt. 24:15); tribulation for 3 1/2 years (Matt. 24:21; Dan. 12:1, 7, 11); resurrection (Dan. 12:2). The whole of Daniel 11:5ff. and 12 must be read as one connected story and the Daniel passage must be kept in mind as the background to Jesus' discourse in Matthew 24. 3
Breaking the connection between Matthew 24:15 and Daniel 11:31 (12:11) is the one single factor leading to mistaken systems of prophecy. The link is established by Jesus' own words: "Let the reader understand that I am referring to the book of Daniel" (see Matt. 24:15).4 Daniel 9:27 speaks also of an abominable person on the rampage (desolating) in Jerusalem for 3 1/2 years. Daniel 8:13, 14 give more information. All these verses form the background to Matthew 24:15-31 and harmonize with it. Remember the one key to Matthew 24: The tribulation of which Jesus spoke is to be followed immediately by cosmic signs and the second coming. And the tribulation is to be triggered by the abomination of desolation already prophesied by Daniel 11:31. When these facts are held together they build up a composite picture of events destined to happen just before Jesus arrives. When all this will happen no one knows. But when Christians see the abomination of desolation, and the events which follow, then they may "look up, because their redemption is drawing near" (Luke 21:28). The time will have arrived for the reordering of earth's affairs under the supervision of Jesus, the Messiah. The kingdom of God will be here. If the sighting of the Abomination was confined to AD 70 it would be no sign of the end of the age. Near to two millennia have passed since AD 70.
Some will ask: Why did Jesus say that "this generation will not pass before all these things come to pass" (Matt. 24:34)? He was clearly referring to all the great events of Matthew 24 including his arrival in power and glory. Did these events happen within 40 years of his giving the prediction? Clearly not.
The solution is that "this generation" can mean "this present evil era of human history" lasting till the second coming. Jesus said, in effect, We will not come to the end of this present evil age until all the awful events I outlined have happened. For the meaning "age" for "generation," see Luke 16:8: "The sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own 'generation' than the sons of light." "Generation" here means a type of society characterized by evil qualities. This sort of society will last until the Kingdom comes. In Proverbs 30:11-14 a similar idea is expressed in the Hebrew word dor which can mean "generation characterized by quality or condition; class of men" (Brown, Driver, Briggs). (See the NIV of Prov. 30:11: "There are those who..."). For the same meaning for "generation," as a group of people characterized by a single quality, usually wicked but sometimes righteous, see Psalm 22:30 and 24:1-6. "Generation" in Matthew 24:34 does not mean "race," nor does it refer to some future period of 40 or 70 years. The erroneous predictions of the Jehovah's Witnesses were based on that mistaken idea. 5
Jesus himself did not know the day or the hour of his coming back to the earth (Matt. 24:36). He looked out over the temple building and knew from prophecy that there would be great trouble (v. 21) in Jerusalem and in the temple just before he came back. Jesus knew that any temple on that site would have to be removed in order to make way for the building of a millennial temple when he came back to rule the world in the Kingdom. Jesus would not necessarily have known whether the temple then standing (in AD 30) was the one which would suffer trouble just before his return. As it turned out that temple was destroyed and no return of Jesus occurred "immediately after." But Jesus saw a temple and an abomination of the future, close to his second coming. Immediately after the tribulation connected with the temple he would return (Matt. 24:29). It is reasonable to believe that a temple or sanctuary will yet be built in Jerusalem. That temple will finally give way to the new millennial temple which Jesus will build when he comes to rule as king with the saints (Rev. 20:1-6). The presence of the Abomination of Desolation in a temple remains the great sign of the end of the age and the coming of Jesus. But before that the Gospel of the Kingdom must be preached in the whole world, "and then the end will come" (Matt. 24:14, 15).
1 The Gospel According to St. Matthew, pp. 352, 352.
2 Ibid., p. 347.
3 For a full-length study showing that Mark 13 (the parallel to Matt. 24) is a commentary on Daniel 11 and 12, see Prophecy Interpreted, by Lars Hartman, Conectiana Biblica.
4 The parenthesis is no doubt added by Matthew, reflecting Jesus' intention.
5 For an excellent study of the meaning of "generation," see "'This Generation' in Matt. 24:34: A Literary Critical Perspective," Neil Nelson, JETS, Sept 1996, pp. 369-385.
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