This series has tried to present an in-depth study of the two letters that Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica. In both letters Paul describes in detail the second coming of Christ and the events surrounding it. At this point I would like to add to the information that Paul provides in these epistles by reviewing a passage from the gospel of Matthew that addresses this same topic: the Second Coming and the Judgment. Jesus speaks about His return and the end of the world in Matthew 24-25.
1Jesus came out from the temple and was going away when His disciples came up to point out the temple buildings to Him. 2And He said to them, "Do you not see all these things? Truly I say to you, not one stone here will be left upon another, which will not be torn down." 3As He was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, "Tell us, when will these things happen, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?"
- Matthew 24:1-3
In this passage Matthew describes a scene where Jesus is leaving the temple area and as He leaves His disciples point out the magnificent buildings of the temple, which He has just said will one day be deserted. During that period the temple had undergone extensive reconstruction work; the latest effort being paid for by Herod himself.
In verse 1 Jesus responds to their comments by saying that the buildings will not only be empty, they will be torn down. This sets up further questions by the Apostles (Peter, James, John and Andrew - Matthew 13:13) who wanted more information about what He had just told them. In their dialogue the Apostles questioned Him about two things:
- When will the temple be destroyed?
- What signs will accompany the end of the world that will be brought on by the Second Coming?
Now, whether the Apostles thought these two events would happen at the same time or at different times, we do not know. We do know from their questions that they were asking about two different events:
- The destruction of the temple.
- The return of the Lord at the end of the world.
The following section in Matthew can be confusing so it helps if we divide it into the three views of history that Jesus spoke of in answering their questions.
1. Panoramic View – vs. 4-14
4And Jesus answered and said to them, "See to it that no one misleads you. 5For many will come in My name, saying, 'I am the Christ,' and will mislead many. 6You will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not frightened, for those things must take place, but that is not yet the end. 7For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and in various places there will be famines and earthquakes. 8But all these things are merely the beginning of birth pangs.
9"Then they will deliver you to tribulation, and will kill you, and you will be hated by all nations because of My name. 10At that time many will fall away and will betray one another and hate one another. 11Many false prophets will arise and will mislead many. 12Because lawlessness is increased, most people's love will grow cold. 13But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved. 14This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come.
- Matthew 24:4-14
In these verses Jesus describes an overview or panoramic view of world history that includes the time before the destruction of the temple, the time after the destruction and the period at the end of time when He will return.
2. Telescope to Jerusalem View – vs. 15-35
15"Therefore when you see the abomination of desolation which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), 16then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains. 17Whoever is on the housetop must not go down to get the things out that are in his house. 18Whoever is in the field must not turn back to get his cloak. 19But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! 20But pray that your flight will not be in the winter, or on a Sabbath. 21For then there will be a great tribulation, such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever will. 22Unless those days had been cut short, no life would have been saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short. 23Then if anyone says to you, 'Behold, here is the Christ,' or 'There He is,' do not believe him. 24For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect. 25Behold, I have told you in advance. 26So if they say to you, 'Behold, He is in the wilderness,' do not go out, or, 'Behold, He is in the inner rooms,' do not believe them. 27For just as the lightning comes from the east and flashes even to the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be. 28Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.
29"But 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 the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 30And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory. 31And He will send forth His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.
32"Now learn the parable from the fig tree: when its branch has already become tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near; 33so, you too, when you see all these things, recognize that He is near, right at the door. 34 Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away.
- Matthew 24:15-35
In these verses Jesus telescopes or focuses on one great event in the history of the Jews: the destruction of Jerusalem, which we know took place in 70 AD, some 40 years into the future.
3. Telescope to the Second Coming – vs. 36-44
36"But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone. 37For the coming of the Son of Man will be just like the days of Noah. 38For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, 39and they did not understand until the flood came and took them all away; so will the coming of the Son of Man be. 40Then there will be two men in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one will be left.
42"Therefore be on the alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming. 43But be sure of this, that if the head of the house had known at what time of the night the thief was coming, he would have been on the alert and would not have allowed his house to be broken into. 44For this reason you also must be ready; for the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not think He will.
- Matthew 24:36-44
Jesus finishes with a look to the far future when He will return ushering in the end of days and the judgment. If we keep these three views in mind it will help us to untangle these complex verses.
Panorama Until Second Coming – vs. 4-15
Vs. 4 – This instruction is given so that they will know and avoid false teachers and prophets in these matters.
Vs. 5-8 – The cycle of false prophets, wars and troubles in the world will continue until the end but these in themselves are not the signs – they are only the beginning of things that will get progressively worse before not only the end of Jerusalem comes, but also the end of the world comes.
Vs. 9-12 – Parallel to II Thessalonians where Paul talks about the end of the world and what must take place first:
- Apostasy (falling away, love grows cold)
- Man of Lawlessness who deceives many through false signs and tries to take the place of God – he will be revealed.
- Jesus describes the devolution of the world (a cycle of evil and revival that continue to play out in human history until during a period of extreme evil the cycle is broken by the appearance of Jesus signaling the end of the world, it's destruction, the resurrection and judgement of all mankind with condemnation for some and glory for disciples)
Vs. 13 – In contrast, He promises that the faithful will be saved despite these trials and evil.
Vs. 14 – He also promises that the great commission will be carried out and must be carried out before the end can/will come.
This is a panoramic view of the events and flow of history that will occur until His second coming.
Telescope to Fall of Jerusalem – vs. 15-35
Judea was rebellious and longed to return to the glory days of independence and power experienced by the nation during the time of Solomon's reign. This caused such unrest that Rome sent in troops to quell the rebellion. From 66-70 AD the Roman armies successfully laid siege to Jerusalem and totally destroyed the city and temple along with over 1 million people. This destruction of the Jewish nation and its principle city and temple was the fulfillment of Jesus' prophecy to the disciples years earlier, described in this passage. The disciples wanted to know when this would happen and Jesus gives them the "signs" to watch out for, because many of them would still be alive when it would happen.
Vs. 1-18 – The first sign was the Abomination of Desolation. The point was that when the temple would be desecrated this would be a sign that destruction was near and they should escape the city. The prophet Daniel (Daniel 11:31; 12:11) had prophesied that the temple would be defiled and it was in the days of the Maccabees by the Syrian king, Antiochus Epiphanes, who sacrificed a pig on the altar of the temple. Jesus picks up this idea and says that in the same way when the temple will be defiled by Gentiles during their lifetimes, it will be the signal to escape.
But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then recognize that her desolation is near.
- Luke 21:20
Luke 21:20 tells us that the surrounding of the temple by foreign armies is what constituted defilement. The standards or shields of the Roman army were idolatrous and often used for worship by the soldiers. Surrounding the temple with these would desecrate it. Many scholars differ here as to what the "abomination" was, and refer to Jewish historians for events that occurred before, during or after the siege that could fit, but Luke 21:20 is the only biblical reference that is suitable in this context.
"He who reads" means he who reads Daniel and, along with Christ's cryptogram, will be able to know when it is time to escape. In 68 AD the majority of Christians living in Jerusalem escaped to Pella, a city located in modern day Jordan, and thus avoid being killed in the massacre.
Vs. 19-21 – The tribulation refers to the suffering caused by the Roman siege of the city.
- Over 1 million killed
- The combination of the gravity of their sin (Jews who received the blessings and promises but rejected and killed their Messiah) along with the horror of the punishment (nation wiped out) has not been equaled.
Vs. 22 – God's providence permitted this war to end so that the Christians would not also be annihilated along with the Jews. In their attack, the Roman soldiers made no distinction between Christian and non-Christian Jews.
Vs. 23-26 – The believers would naturally associate the destruction of Jerusalem with the return of Jesus, so the Lord warns them against being deceived by those who would claim to be the Lord or speak from God. Josephus, a Jewish historian of the time, writes about this period where rumors of the Messiah coming or being present circulated in order to keep the people in the city. The Roman threat created hysteria and fear that in turn produced many "prophets" who claimed visions and messages from God. One such prophet said that he would miraculously separate the Sea of Galilee and 25,000 people followed him out.
Vs. 27 – Jesus tells them that when He does return (not in 70 AD but at the end of the world) it will be evident to all, like lightning across the sky. Everyone will easily and readily know that it is He.
Vs. 28 – The corpse is the Jewish nation, the vultures are the false Christs and prophets. When you see them in abundance, this will be a second sign that the end of Jerusalem is near.
Vs. 29 – The first word in this verse presents a problem to some: Immediately. If we make this next section a discussion about the end of the world and the second coming of Jesus, then it must occur right after the destruction of Jerusalem (some believe and teach Jesus had already returned). Since the Man of Lawlessness has not been revealed, Jesus has not returned, therefore this passage must still be talking about events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem not the end of the world.
Vs. 30-31 – Therefore verses 29-31 speak about the destruction and the effects that it will have on both believers and non-believers. The language is Apocalyptic and is used by prophets to describe cataclysmic historical and political events (Isaiah 13 describes the destruction of Babylon in similar language). Language using the symbolism of the destruction of heavenly bodies is used to describe the very real fate of the world at the end (II Peter 3:10), but also the end and destruction of nations on the earth. In this case the end of the Jewish nation as a people under God's special care.
The coming of the Son of Man refers to both the second coming at the end of the world as well as any judgment that God makes on a particular nation throughout history; in this case the nation of Israel in 70 AD. It also fits the context of this passage. The Jews who rejected Him now will see him coming as a form of judgment on their nation, a terrible catastrophe that would horrify the world but liberate Christians and the Gospel from Jewish persecution.
Note that the Greek word translated "angel" can also be translated as "messenger." This verse can be seen as prophecy concerning the spreading of the Gospel throughout the world after the fall of Jerusalem. Verse 14 said this needed to be done before Christ returned and now with the ideological and cultural restraints of Judaism removed, Christianity would flourish even more.
Vs. 32-35 – Jesus warns them to pay attention to the signs that He has given them because these things will happen in their generation, and He promises by His word that they will happen!
Telescope to Second Coming – vs. 36-44
Jesus has just explained the signs that will preview the destruction of Jerusalem:
- Preaching of Gospel to all nations (Romans 10:18)
- Multiplication of false Christs (historian Josephus)
- Abomination of Temple (Luke 2:20)
- Great tribulation (historian Josephus)
In verses 36-44 He makes a contrast of this event with the second coming at the end of the world.
Vs. 36 – No one knows the time, not even Jesus while He is with His disciples. This refers to His second coming, not the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.
Vs. 37-39 – There will be no cataclysmic signs and all will seem normal. Normal in the sense that the believers will be preparing themselves for the second coming and the end of the world, and the rest of the world will be ignoring it until it will be too late (just like in the time of Noah).
Vs. 40-41 – Some take this verse to mean that before Jesus returns some will be taken in a "Rapture" and disappear to be with God in heaven. This is part of the Pre-millenialist view of the rapture and 1,000 year reign. In context, however, Jesus is talking about readiness and He says that when He returns suddenly, one will be saved and one lost – no time for repentance and change. Just like Noah, when the rain came they were taken and disappeared into the ark, the others remained to die in the flood. When Jesus comes, the faithful will be taken to be with Him and the disbelievers immediately put away from His presence.
Vs. 42-44 – Since the end is to be like this we should always be prepared and not foolishly lapse into sin thinking we have plenty of time to repent. Christians need to be ready for His return because no one knows when it will be.
Exhortations to Vigilance – Matthew 24:45-25:30
After responding to the question of the judgment on Jerusalem and His return, Jesus warns them to be vigilant and does so with three parables:
- Parable of the evil slave (vs. 45-51) - Here the lesson is not to presume we have the luxury of sinning because the end is far away, it can come at any time and the judgment is sure for those who are unfaithful.
- Parable of the 10 virgins (25:1-13) - Here Jesus warns against the foolishness of not being ready. In this parable it is not a question of gross evil, but rather of negligence. To neglect Christ will bring destruction in the end as well.
- Parable of the talents (vs. 14-30) - Here the warning is for those who are in the Kingdom of God (church), but who fail to expand its borders and fail to serve the king with zeal. This slave was not caught or surprised unprepared, he just assumed that his preparation was sufficient when it wasn't.
All three parables have the element of preparation, judgment and punishment for those who neglect to prepare for the return of the Master.
Judgment Scene – 25:31-46
The climax of the discourse is the judgment scene at the end of the world. Those found to be righteous have obeyed the commands to love God (refer to Him as Lord) as well as their neighbor. This was the way to prepare. Those condemned have the same judgment and are condemned because they did not love their neighbor.
The punishment and reward is eternal in nature. The overarching theme is: Be Ready.