(by Bob Pulliam)
In one way or another, most folks have trouble with the meaning of Jesus' prophecies in Matthew 24. Some mistake the meaning and create all sorts of absurd theories. All too many just give up on the material saying, "it's too difficult." The content of Matthew 24 can be clearly understood, however. It's simply a matter of applied context.
Setting the Scene...
In chapter twenty-three, we find material that is helpful in understanding chapter twenty-four. To begin with, we see Jesus foretelling the rejection of prophets that He would send (v34). When we come to the book of Acts, we find this fulfilled:
-Apostles (Acts 4:1-22; 5:17-41; 12:1ff).
-Prophets (Acts 6:8-7:60; 11:19-24).
These were rejected as prophesied.
We also find Jesus condemning the Jewish leaders and their forefathers for rejecting God's messengers. The blood of these prophets would be upon the heads of the generation to which Jesus was speaking. And with this we find Jesus lamenting over Jerusalem because of her impending destruction.
What prompted Jesus’ prophecy of Matthew 24? As we begin in verse one, we read about the disciples pointing out the temple buildings and the magnificent architecture of the temple complex to Jesus. From history we know that it truly was a sight to behold. It took a total of 83 years to complete, and was only in it’s 49th year of construction as Jesus and his disciples looked upon it here (when it's destruction came in AD 70, it had only been finished six years).
In verse two, Jesus tells the disciples of it's destruction. After they cross the Kidron valley and sit on the Mount of Olives, the disciples ask Jesus when these things (destruction of the temple) will be, and when the end of the age will come (v3). Notice that the disciples think that the destruction of the temple and the end of the age will come at the same time. The questions that have been asked by the disciples will now be answered by Jesus, one at a time.
The First Question Answered...
They have asked, "when will these things be" (viz. "not one stone here shall be left upon another, which will not be torn down." v2). The signs of the destruction of Jerusalem could be seen by watching (vv4-14). False Christs, rumors of wars, famines, earthquakes, tribulation, many misled, gospel preached abroad....... "then the end". These are the passages normally applied to the end of time... but they are misapplied for they refer to the end of Jerusalem, it’s destruction in AD 70.
Note that the end only affects a specific area (Judea vv15-22), "let those in Judea" (v16). He said "pray that your flight may not be... on a Sabbath" (v20). Why would that apply in any other place at a later time? And notice that the parallel account in Luke 21:10 - 32 specifies Jerusalem as the place where these events will occur.
"But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those who are in the midst of her depart, and let not those who are in the country enter her." (Lk 21:20f)
False Christs would be in the land, and Jesus warns against following them (vv23-28). But the subject here is not the time of his second coming. It is the time preceding the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Verses 27 & 28 are involved with showing why they shouldn't believe the previously mentioned rumors. When Jesus does come, it will be seen by all, not just a few.
Then we have a vivid description of destruction (vv29-31). Are these descriptions literal? ("sun will be darkened... moon will not give it's light... stars will fall..."). Granted, this is not the way we might describe anything other than the end of the world, but such was not true of God’s word. These same type of descriptions were used in the fall of ancient cities and the coming of great events:
-Pentecost (Joel 2:28-32, esp 30f)
-Enemies of Zion (Isa 29:5f)
-Evil nations (Isa 34:1 - 4)
-Rebuke of Israel (Isa 50:3)
These describe what might be called "earth-shattering" events. All this would come about "immediately after the tribulation of those days" (v29). This is the tribulation in verse 21 which referred to the destruction of Jerusalem (remember Lk 21:20f). We find that they'll be able to see these events coming (vv32-34). Signs will be as clear as the fruit on a tree, and "This generation will not pass away until all these things take place." It is absurd to say that Jesus is referring to any other generation than the one to which He is speaking here (compare Mt 23:36)! If these things were to come about in that generation, then they have been fulfilled.
Jesus Answers the Second Question...
They had also asked, "what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?" (v3) With a transition in thought, Jesus now changes subjects from that of the destruction of Jerusalem to the matter of the end of time. This is introduced by the statement, "Heaven and earth will pass away". This transition is clearly defined by the first words of the next section. "But of that day and hour no one knows..."; what day and hour?... When heaven and earth shall pass away. Notice the bold difference between this language and that of verses 32 - 34. In answering the first question, they could know just as one would know that fruit on a tree is ripe. In answering this second question, no one knows, not even the Son of Man. The subject, then, is "when shall heaven and earth pass away?
When Jesus said no one knows the day and hour, did He mean we could figure the week, month, and year? A fellow back in 1988 said we could, and he had it all figured to commence in 1988. But Jesus' point is not that we can approximately figure the time of His return. The point is that we need to be watchful for we know not when He is coming! "Day" and "Hour" are not always used of a literal 24 hour, or 60 minute period of time.
On "day" see, Matthew 27:8; 28:15; John 8:56; 16:26; Ephesians 6:13. In these passages, the word "time" could easily be substituted for the word "day", for that is the idea.
On "hour" see, John 2:4; 4:21; I John 2:18. In these passages, the word "time" could easily be substituted for the word "hour", for that is the idea.
It will "be just like the days of Noah". (vv37-39) Is Jesus' point that Noah knew the approximate time, or... life will be going on as if all is well; then destruction will come (v38)? Obviously, the latter. It will be a surprise (v39). They will be going about daily activities when those taken will depart (vv40- 42). There will be great suddenness and surprise as life goes on. Jesus speaks of two being together and one taken while the other is left. Which is taken, and which is left? The millenarian says the righteous are taken and the wicked are left. They commonly apply this passage to the rapture, but they have missed the point. First of all, Jesus’ point is suddenness, not that some are going to remain on earth for 1,000 years. Secondly, Jesus said the wicked will be the ones taken out, leaving the righteous (Mt 13:37 - 41). How long will the righteous be left? Not long, for sure (Jn 5:28f; Mt 25:31ff). The point of all this is that there will be no time to prepare after His coming! Preparation must be made before He comes! Jesus compares it to the coming of a thief in the night. (vv43-44)
By studying Matthew 24:1 - 44 in it's entirety and with it's context intact, one can clearly understand the message of our Lord. When we take verses by themselves without this understanding, we are sure to misapply Jesus' words. This is why the religious world is able to get the ideas it does from Matthew 24. They want to find a future tribulation or secret rapture at our Lord's second coming. But this passage does not teach it!