Straight Outta Context: Matthew 24
The 24th chapter of Matthew is quite possibly the most misunderstood passage in all of scripture. So, today let's discuss some critical ideas concerning this chapter. For sake of space, we cannot go into great detail. However, we will look at some of the errors taught, and how it is misused today.
Matthew 24 is the chapter where it says that there would be wars and rumors of wars, famines, pestilences, earthquakes, and so on. These statements were definitely made—the question is, Do they relate to the second coming of Christ, and the end of the world?
The theory is this: Since we today are experiencing wars and rumors of wars, and since there are pestilences, famines, and earthquakes (some groups claim that we are having more earthquakes worldwide than ever before), that must mean that the end of the world is near.
Overview of the Signs
To be fair, Matthew 24 does indeed give many signs, and we will refer to them briefly. In Matthew 24:4-5, it is prophesied that there will be false christs:
...many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many.
Verse 6 mentions "wars and rumors of wars." Verse 7 says:
For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places.
Then he prophesies about persecutions (verse 9):
Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name's sake.
Then he prophesies about apostasies (vs. 10-12)
And then shall many be offended, and shall betray one another, and shall hate one another. And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many. And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.
Then he further prophesies about the spread of the Gospel (verse 14):
And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.
Then he mentions something in verse 15 called the abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel the Prophet.
So these are the signs mentioned in Matthew 24, and these are what many take to be referring to the second coming of Christ and the end of the world.
So, when all of these things happen:
- False christs (vs. 4-5)
- Wars and rumors of wars (vs. 6-7)
- Famines and earthquakes (vs. 7)
- Persecution (vs. 9)
- Apostasies (vs. 10-12)
And then, finally, when the Gospel is preached to all people, "the end" shall come (vs. 14).
Now, according to many, these are the signs that were given to tell us when the secondcoming of Christ would be, and when the end of the world would soon occur.
The Key to Understanding This Passage
We must go back to the first three verses of the chapter, because therein is the key. These people who talk about the false christs, wars and desolations, earthquakes, kingdom against kingdom, and pestilence—skip what is really the key to the whole chapter. But if you go back to verse 1, you will see the context of what it was that was being discussed.
And Jesus went out, and departed from the temple: and his disciples came to him for to show him the buildings of the temple. And Jesus said unto them, See ye not all these things?(24:1-2)
Notice the phrase “all these things,” because you will see it again and again throughout this chapter.
It is clear what Jesus is referencing in verse 3, because the disciples had just shown Him the great buildings of the temple. They were proud of the temple and its buildings, so they took the Lord out as if to say "Look at that! Look at all these great structures that have been built!" In verse 2,
Jesus said unto them, See ye not all these things? What things are they talking about? The buildings of the temple!
verily I say unto you, There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down. Now what is the prophesy made by the Lord? To put it into today’s terminology, we might say something like this: "The buildings of the temple that you think are so permanent—these great buildings that you are taking pride in—will be cast down, so that there will be not left any stone upon another."
That is the prophecy made by Jesus. But what does it have to do with anything? I submit that it has to do with the destruction of the Jewish temple. The disciples came to show Jesus the great buildings of the temple, and Jesus said to them
...see ye not all these things?...verily I say unto you, There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.
Now, keeping all that in mind, the key is found in verse 3. If you miss this verse, you will never get the true meaning of the chapter, because verse 3 deals with the questions made by the disciples. So notice the questions they asked:
And as he sat upon the mount of Olives, the disciples came unto him privately, saying, Tell us, when shall these things be?(Mat 24:3)
Notice that they used the same phrase in the question that Jesus had used in the preceding verse regarding the downfall of the temple.
See ye not all these things? When they asked their questions, they said
Tell us, when shall these things be? They used the very same phrase—these things—to refer to the buildings of the temple being cast down. So it is clear that they understood that Jesus was discussing the destruction of the temple.
Notice too that they went a bit further, and asked another question:
and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?
This is why it is so important to read these verses. The reason verse 3 is the key to understanding the rest of the chapter is because the disciples did not just ask one question—they asked two.
Now, it is possible that they thought it all referred to the same event. Perhaps in their minds, they could not conceive of the temple being destroyed by anything less than the second coming of Christ and the end of the World. They may have thought it would all occur at the same time. Their question may have been intended as "When will these things be—the end of the world, and Your second coming—when is that all going to happen? We know it must be all on the same day."
The disciples may have thought it was all going to be at the same time, but Jesus deals not with one question, but with two. And when he comes to answer the questions, He answers them separately. We cannot overemphasize that, since it is the key to understanding this chapter.
There were two questions asked; Jesus answers them both separately, and the answers are not the same.
Answer to the First Question
Tell us, when shall these things be?
Contextually, the phrase “these things” directly refers to the destruction of the temple. And it is not any secret to us today when “these things” came to pass. That occurred when the city of Jerusalem was destroyed in the year AD 70. In 70 AD, when the city of Jerusalem was destroyed, the temple came down. That was the fulfillment of the prophecy that Jesus made here.
But this was spoken some 40 years before that event. So in approximately AD 30, when Jesus was here on this earth, in his personal ministry he said that the temple would be destroyed so that there would not be one stone left upon another. And approximately 40 years after the Lord said it would happen, it did.
And there would be some signs about the destruction of Jerusalem. In verse 4 Jesus begins to give the signs: wars and rumors of wars, pestilence, earthquakes, nation against nation, kingdom against kingdom, famines, false christs, love would be cold, and the gospel would be preached to the nations.
These are the signs that the religious world says we should look for, believing that they are signs of the second coming and the end of the world. But Jesus is not answering the "end of the world" question yet. He is discussing the fall of Jerusalem.
There would be one ultimate sign given in verse 15:
When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the holy place, (whoso readeth, let him understand:)...
Jesus here mentions the abomination of desolation standing in the holy place—which was the inside part of the temple, so we know he is talking about the temple. But what is the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel? (Daniel 9:27) Jesus says, in the parallel account as recorded by Luke:
And when ye shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that the desolation thereof is nigh.(Luke 21:20)
So what is the abomination of desolation? It is the approach of the army. We know now it was the Roman Army that encompassed the city of Jerusalem, and they put their flags and their various signs up even in the holy place of the temple. So Jesus was giving the disciples warning signs, so that they would know what to do when they see the armies surround Jerusalem.
Then let them which be in Judea flee into the mountains...(vs. 16)
Why apply this instruction to the second coming of Christ? At the end of the world, there will not be anywhere to flee to. But when the Roman armies encircled the city of Jerusalem, there would be a great need to run to the mountains in order to escape the desolation and destruction that was coming upon the city of Jerusalem. If you read Josephus, even he tells of how the Christians fled to the mountains and were spared.
So we ask the question: Was Jesus talking about the end of the world here? No! Was He talking about the Second coming of Christ? No! He was talking about an event from which they had the ability to flee. Jesus further states:
Let him which is on the housetop not come down to take any thing out of his house: Neither let him which is in the field return back to take his clothes.(vs. 17-18)
Jesus told them when they saw these signs appear, to get out of Jerusalem, don’t even go into the house. But why would anyone want to go back and get his clothes if it was the end of the world? It doesn’t make sense. But it makes good sense if it is talking about the destruction of Jerusalem. When the Roman armies came, they needed to take off quickly—there was no time to go back and get things—they just needed to get out of that city.
And woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days! But pray ye that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the sabbath day...(vs. 19-20)
If you were pregnant or had small children, it would be harder because your travel would be slowed down. And travel would be restricted on the Sabbath day—the gates of the city would be closed—and the winter would make travel very difficult. All of this fits perfectly with the question that was asked by the disciples:
Tell us, when shall these things be?—meaning the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple.
These Things and This Generation
Let us consider the phrase
these things again. It appears in each of the following verses:
See ye not all these things?(vs. 2)
...the disciples came unto him privately, saying, Tell us, when shall these things be?(vs. 3)
And ye shall hear of wars and rumors of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.(vs. 6)
Then, after He has given all the signs, notice what Jesus says in vs. 33-34:
So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors. Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.
The phrase “these things” is mentioned five times in this chapter, and each time, Jesus is answering the first question about the temple. Notice verse 34 again:
Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.
This is the termination point of this part of the question. Everything before this verse is in answer to the question concerning the destruction of Jerusalem, because verse 34 says
This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.
That is exactly what He meant. He did not mean, as some people like to claim, that 40 years from that time Jerusalem would become a nation again. When people begin playing with timelines beyond what is mentioned, they are using God’s Word out of context.
This was something that would occur within that time period, and in fact it did occur when Christ said it was going to happen: about 40 years later. In 70 AD, everything from verse 4 down to verse 34 did come to pass.
God made sure we could understand what was meant by “this generation.” In Matthew 12:41-42, the Lord condemned the people who were living at that time, and He said:
The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and, behold, a greater than Jonah is here. The queen of the south shall rise up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for she came from the uttermost parts of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and, behold, a greater than Solomon is here.(Mat 12:41)
Jesus is basically saying "I am greater than Jonah, and you will not repent." But who would not repent? The generation who heard the Lord. Folks, it is the same thing—“this generation” is talking about the generation alive during that time.
Some ask about verses 29-30 in discussing the heavens being shaken and the Son of Man coming, and believe that it is in reference to the second coming of Christ. Notice:
Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken...(Mat 24:29)
Does this have reference to the second coming of Christ? No. All you need to do is look back at Isaiah 13:10, and you see the exact same language used in reference to the fall of Babylon. Stars and constellations many times in the Bible are used in an apocalyptic style, and refer to the fall of mighty powers. The Jewish economy fell at the destruction of Jerusalem, and I am confident that this is what is referenced in this passage.
The fact remains that verse 34 says that all this would be fulfilled in this generation. Matthew 24:30 states:
And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.
Is that a reference to the second coming of Jesus? Actually, it's not. It is a reference to the Lord’s coming with judgment upon Jerusalem (using another nation, as he did many times in the Bible).
Notice what is written in Isaiah 19:1 about judgment coming upon Egypt:
The burden of Egypt. Behold, the LORD rideth upon a swift cloud...
Many times when God judged the nations in the Old Testament, He did so with other nations, and the same imagery of coming in the clouds with power is used, similar to this passage where it says that He shall come in clouds and with power. And we know it must be this type of coming, because in verse 34 it says that all these things would be fulfilled before this generation passed.
So, from verses 4-34 the Lord answers that first question (about the destruction of Jerusalem), and says that all the signs are for the destruction of Jerusalem, despite the fact that many today believe the signs to be pointing to the end of the world. In actuality, all the signs came and were fulfilled in 70 AD.
Answer to the Second Question
In verse 36, the Lord begins to answer their second question. Notice the contrast in the two answers:
Question 1: When shall these things be?
Answer: There will be all of these signs, and finally when you see the army surrounding the city, flee!
Question 2: What of the second coming and the end of the world?
Answer: No one knows, not even the angels of Heaven know the answer to that question!
But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.(vs. 36)
Notice how Mark tells it:
But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.(Mark 13:32)
While Christ was upon this earth, it appears that this information was kept back even from Him. How then can people say that Christ was giving signs of the end of the world, when according to Christ, He did not even know when it was going to be?
The denominational world tells us that Jesus claimed in the first 34 verses, “You want to know about the end of times? OK, there will be wars and rumors of wars, and famine, and pestilence, and earthquakes, and desolation,” and then He gets down to verse 36 and says—“Well, actually I don’t really know when it will be.” Is that what you are going to claim about our Lord?
The Contrast and Conclusion
There is a notable contrast in the way Jesus answered these questions. In answering the second question Jesus says:
Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come.(Matthew 24:42)
However, as he was answering the first question concerning the temple, He said:
So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors.(Matthew 24:33)
"You want to know about the temple and fall of the city? OK, look around and watch for the signs." But when He answers the question concerning the second coming and the end of the world, He says "nobody knows that." And he warns, “watch, for you do not know when it will be.”
In fact, He further states that it will be when you think it will not come (vs. 44):
Therefore be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh.(Matthew 24:44)
If our Lord told about the signs so we would know that something was coming, why does He say in verse 44 that we don’t know, and that it will not even be when we think it is? The answer is that He is answering two different questions.
This is the key to getting the real meaning out of Matthew 24: Realizing that verse three contains two different questions:
- When shall these things be? (the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple)
- When shall the second coming and the end of the world be?