Dramatic weather changes, pandemics, economic woes, and Russia invading Ukraine have prompted many Christians to wonder afresh if we are now living in the End of the Age.
In February 2021 I wrote on this subject under the title of ‘Are these the End of Days?’ where I quoted a lot from what Jesus said and did. The main source of his teaching on the End Times is Matthew Chapter 24 and in this current article, I want to provide further insight into this important passage of scripture. This chapter of Matthew’s gospel is not easy to understand yet it is essential to providing any meaningful answer to the question many are again asking at this time.
Some of the Difficulties
The chapter starts with the disciples asking Jesus a compound question, but the complication is that it is not immediately obvious how many parts the question contains, one, two, or three. How we understand Jesus’ response depends largely on how many questions we think he addresses.
Then there is verse 14 which has, ‘and then the end will come’, counterbalanced by verse 34 which speaks of ‘this generation’ not passing away until everything spoken of has been completed. So, what time period is in view here? The destruction of the Temple in AD 70 or the second coming of Jesus sometime after 2021?
These examples point to the main problem that confronts us – is Jesus speaking about events less than 4 decades in the future, or events thousands of years in the future, or both?
Systems of Interpretation
Theologians love to create names for their ways of thinking and to gather together various texts and ideas under their chosen heading. The study of the End Times (Eschatology) is no exception, and when it comes to Matthew 24 there are at least three schools of thought.
- There are the Preterists who see the whole of Matthew 24 as referring to the period between AD 33 and AD 70.
- The Futurists hold that all of Chapter 24 concerns just the events immediately prior to Jesus’ second coming.
- The Historicists believe that the whole church age is in view to one extent or another.
So what should we do? Should we opt for one of these systems or try to let the passage of scripture itself settle the matter – this is the approach I take.
The Disciples Question
To understand Jesus’ answer we must obviously understand the questions he was answering. He and his disciples had just been in the temple courts where he had confronted the teachers of the law, and pronounced seven dreadful woes upon them. He concluded his diatribe with the words, “And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. I tell you the truth, all this will come upon this generation” (Matthew 23:35-36). Then he left the temple and as he was walking away ‘his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”’ (Matthew 24:1-2) From there they went up to the Mount of Olives, just to the east of Jerusalem, where the disciples asked him, “When will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
Premillennial Dispensationalists (Futurists) teach that the disciples’ enquiry consists of three separate questions; (1) When will the temple be destroyed? (2) What will be the sign of your second coming? (3) What will be the sign of the End of the Age? This matches their eschatological system that requires a distinction between the second coming of Christ to gather up the church and a much later End Time Judgement. I do not subscribe to this theological system as I believe it is seriously flawed in several ways. Rather, I understand the disciples’ question as containing just two parts; (1) When will all this take place? (The destruction of the Temple), and (2) Will there be any sign ahead of time to signal your return and the end of the world? (The return of Christ to both remove remaining believers from the Earth and to judge all others, followed immediately by the creation of a new HeavenEarth).
The Structure of Jesus’ Answer
The Lord Jesus answered both of these questions in detail, but the problem we have is to work out where in Matthew 24 he deals with each. Some teachers, like Dr Sam Storms, teach that almost all of the chapter concerns the period up to the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, but then have to contend with several end-of-the-world references like verses 29-31 that just do not fit this scheme. Others, like Tim LaHaye, make the whole chapter apply only to the very end of the age but they have to deal with verses like 34 (and what Jesus said in Matthew 23:36).
There are some observations I can make that help us determine the structure of Matthew 24:
- The fact that much of what Jesus said is addressed to the disciples who were with him, but this does not preclude the fact that what he said will also be relevant to future generations. However, it does mean that what he said was indeed relevant to his original hearers within their time frame. In other words, it is not just about the distant future.
- There is evidence of editing, or at least rearranging, of what Jesus said. For instance the insert in verse 15 ‘let the reader understand’ as well as the different narratives in the parallel accounts in Mark 13 and Luke 21.
- The fairly obvious conclusion is that the disciples associated the destruction of the Temple with the End of the Age – otherwise, why would they frame their composite question the way in which they did?
My understanding of the structure of the passage is that Jesus answered both parts of the question in a way typical of teachers of his time by dealing with one, moving on to the other, and then coming back to the previous question. We find this a lot in Paul’s writings and in many parts of the Old Testament. So, the structure that I discern in Matthew 24 is:
The Destruction of the Temple in AD 70 Vs 15-23 and 34-35
Most translations start verse 15 in a way that indicates that it is just a continuation of the previous paragraph – ‘So when you see…’ However, the New Living Translation (NLT) has ‘The time will come when you will see…’ which allows the possibility for the start of a new thought. The underlying Greek text allows for either of these translations, but I think that the NLT is more correct
Jesus refers to an Old Testament prophecy and says: “The time will come when you will see what Daniel the prophet spoke about: the sacrilegious object that causes desecration standing in the Holy Place” — reader, pay attention! “Then those in Judea must flee to the hills”. The reference is to Daniel 11:31 which signifies that ‘the Temple would be used for an “abominable” purpose at some time in the future. As a result, God’s faithful people would no longer worship there-so great would be their moral revulsion, contempt, and abhorrence at the sacrilege-and the Temple would become “desolate.”’ (from Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary).
Luke’s account is a little different and reads, “When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city”. The history produced by Eusebius records that when the Roman armies were marching on Jerusalem, before its ultimate destruction in AD 70, the Christian population of the city took heed of Jesus’ warning and fled the city and relocated in the unique hill town of Pella. Roman soldiers carried the emblems and standards of Rome that the Jews regarded as blasphemous and idolic. When the troops later sacked Jerusalem and the temple, their presence and their emblems in the Holy Place were to the Jews an absolute abomination that causes desolation.
Matthew 24:21 has, ‘then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now — and never to be equaled again’. The historic record shows this to be so. Prior to the siege of Jerusalem, the city was in turmoil with sects and gangs fighting with each other and murdering thousands. When the Romans laid siege to the city, famine and disease added to the dire conditions. Mothers were eating their own children and tens of thousands died of starvation. When the Romans breached the city walls, they systematically slaughtered all the remaining people in Jerusalem save for about 100,000 who they took into slavery. The estimated deaths were over one million people and the slaughter was so great that the blood running in the streets extinguished some of the burning buildings ignited by the soldiers.
Jesus spoke to his disciples about this in AD 33 and all that he predicted concerning the destruction of the temple occurred just 37 years later; this is why he said, “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened” (Matthew 24:34).
Verses relating to the End of the Age in Matthew 24 – Vs 4-14, 23-33, 36-51
Although what Jesus said to his disciples applied to the period from AD 33 to AD 70, it applies even more to us today. He warned of the following:
Deception by false prophets and teachers claiming to represent him.
He explained that part of their deception would be the performance of signs and wonders. He also warned that these people would try to attract Christians to come to them so as to entrap them and deceive them. He used a powerful analogy when he said: “So if anyone tells you, ‘There he is, out in the desert,’ 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”. When we see vultures circling in the air then we know that they indicate the presence of a carcass and not of a source of life. No, when Jesus comes again it will be as obvious and as widely observable to all as lightning covering the whole horizon.
In the last few decades, we have certainly seen and experienced all of these things playing out and intensifying. How many false miracle workers have we seen setting up shop in cities all around the world and beguiling people to come to them for healing, wealth, and influence?
Wars and the news of pending wars.
There have been more than 115 wars in various places during the last 30 years!
Famines and earthquakes
War and famine go hand in hand and the current invasion of Ukraine by Russia could well trigger famine in the developing world, especially as climate change bites harder and harder. Here is a link to an impressive list of the deadliest earthquakes in the last 30 years
Persecution and apostasy
Living in the West or in South Africa, as I do, it is hard to imagine the extent and severity of persecution actually taking place right now. Here is a map showing the 50 countries where persecution is currently most prevalent.
Strange and frightening signs in the heavens
Of late there have been many strange phenomena in our atmosphere and in the solar system. The US government is even reopening its investigative case on the appearance of UFO sightings. I don’t want to comment further on this as it is a subject that lies somewhere in the twilight zone between unexplained actual occurrences and the imaginations of very creative people.
Jesus also gave two strong indicators of the imminence of his coming at the End of the Age when he said that the Gospel would be preached to the whole world as a final testimony to all people and that ‘the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky’. He used the analogy of the sprouting fig tree to indicate that when we see these things happen then we will know that ‘it is near, right at the door’. However, Jesus also warned that, “No man knows about that day or hour…”, but that it would be sudden.
Jesus gave no instructions to us about anything different that we should do when we see the swift approach of the End of Time. His essential message was to be ready to meet him and to be faithful stewards of his kingdom right up until he comes again (Verses 36-51).
There is no Pella to flee to, and no doomsday prepping to undertake, but there is a Gospel to share and a life to live faithfully in trust and obedience. It is more urgent than ever that we come to know Jesus, become like him, and help others to do likewise.
Gospel outreach and the Sign of the Son of Man
There are very few people groups in the world who have not yet heard a presentation of the Gospel in some form or other. However, over and above that, genuine Revival inevitably results in a powerful surge of people coming to know Jesus. I believe that we are yet to see the greatest and most widespread Revival that this planet has ever experienced, perhaps a final act of divine grace before the End of the Age. See my article HERE or read my book about the key aspects of revival HERE.
What will the Sign of the Son of Man appearing in the sky be? I do not know, but it will be obvious to all people if indeed it is to have the result that Jesus spoke of when he said “At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. 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” (Matthew 24:30-31).
Are we living in the End of the Age then?
I think that we ARE approaching the time of the end when Jesus will come again, all people will be judged, and God will create a new HeavenEarth as his eternal abode with his children saved from every age. I do not think that world conditions will get better, although the end will probably come when everything appears to be hunky-dory. I also do not believe that Christians will be snatched out of an increasingly chaotic world except for those still alive when the Day of Judgment comes, for God will never pour out his wrath upon his children.
A key passage of scripture that we need to believe and hold onto in these trying days is where Jesus said “remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” HSCB (Matthew 28:20). This is the bottom line of the issue and this article; no matter what the conditions, Jesus is with us always.