Thoughts from Matthew 24…
We can often become discouraged during times of crisis. Our current difficulties can weigh us down, but it is especially hard when we can’t see hope for the future. It is this discouragement and despair — when there is no hope — that can bring down even the strongest among us.
When we know Jesus Christ, we have a wonderful hope for a future with Him. But I wonder how much Jesus’ disciples could understand this hope on that Tuesday, as they were sitting with Him on the Mount of Olives. He had just finished a major confrontation with the religious leaders, and their expectations of His glorious kingdom were quickly fading away. The opposition had shown themselves to be determined to destroy him at all costs. The crowds who had been loudly praising him on Sunday were now, only two days later, strangely quiet. And finally, when they showed the Lord their great temple, He told them that it would be totally destroyed!
But on that Tuesday, alone with his closest friends, the Lord Jesus Christ showed them what is to come. Things will not get better, instead they will get worse. As discussed in the previous study (Matthew 24:1-14), many will try to deceive them, but He warned them to not be led astray! His followers will face hatred and persecution from the world because of their belief in Jesus Christ, but do not be discouraged. The Good News of His Kingdom will reach the world and the Holy Spirit will lead them in what they should say.
But the remaining part of the Lord’s message tells of horrible events during the last days of this earth. Yet God is still in control and Jesus Christ will return with power and great glory!
The Great Tribulation
“So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let the one who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house, and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath. For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. And if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short. Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you beforehand. So, if they say to you, ‘Look, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.
“But when you see the abomination of desolation standing where he ought not to be (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let the one who is on the housetop not go down, nor enter his house, to take anything out, and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that it may not happen in winter. For in those days there will be such tribulation as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, and never will be. And if the Lord had not cut short the days, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he shortened the days. And then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. But be on guard; I have told you all things beforehand.
Jesus is saying to them, “When you see the temple desecrated, flee at once!”a b This time of trouble, or tribulation, will be worse than anything that has happened before, to the point that it is only by God’s mercy that all mankind is not destroyed.c False teachers will abound, doing spectacular signs and deceiving almost everyone. It is only through your relationship with Jesus Christ that you can be spared from these false prophets.d
Don’t be fooled by those who say that you can find Christ in secret places. Just as lightning that brightens the sky, everyone will see Jesus Christ when He returns!e f
The Coming of the Son of Man
“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 heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
“But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
“And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
But that is not the final end. Jesus Christ Himself will return to earth!g He will no longer be the humble servant like His first coming, but rather He will come down from the clouds as a conquering King! All the world will see him and recognize, with horror, that they have rejected the One True God!h
The Lesson of the Fig Tree
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
And he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
Just like you know that summer is near when the fig tree begins to leaf, so you should know that the end is near when these things begin to take place. The generation that sees these signs will not end before these end times events take place.i
“The purpose of prophecy is not to entertain the curious, but to encourage the consecrated.” – Warren Wiersbe5
As we study the Lord‘s promises in Matthew 24, it is easy to get it caught up in the many questions over this passage. When will this happen? Will it happen during our lifetime? What will the signs look like? How will we recognize them? While it is important to consider these questions, we must not lose sight of the Lord‘s primary commands.
He gave us these predictions as a warning, a promise, and an encouragement. He warned us that there will be false teachers and prophets, seeking to lead us away from Him. Don’t let them lead you astray! Don’t believe them when they have a “special knowledge” about Jesus Christ and take you away from His Word!
He also gives us promises. Although false teachers will abound, they will not deceive those who truly belong to Jesus Christ. God has set a limit to the worst of times and he will save those who belong to him.
And finally, He leaves us with an encouragement. There will be terrible trouble during the end times, but God is in charge! God will never surrender to the will of evil men. And at the end, we can look forward to His return, knowing that He will defeat the evil one. Although there will be difficulties in this world, we know that we have a wonderful hope that we will be with Him.
This is the hope that we can have in Him: He promises that when we leave our mortal bodies, we will be immediately present with him (2 Corinthians 5:8)! He has left to prepare a home for us and He will come back to bring us to him (John 14:3)! We will be changed to an immortal, imperishable body (1 Corinthians 15:51-13)! While here on earth, we can look forward to the blessed hope and the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ (Titus 2:13)! Even when we are down and discouraged, we can look forward to Jesus Christ, knowing that He will never leave us nor forsake us (Hebrews 13:5)!
Previous post: When Will He Return?
What is the “Tribulation”?
The word “tribulation” is used broadly in Scripture. It can refer to a generic time of trouble or hardship (e.g. the seed on the rocky ground in Matthew 13:21) or it can refer to the specific time of intense hardship upon the world, immediately before Jesus Christ returns. Jesus uses this word three times in Matthew 24: Matthew 24:9 is used generically (“they will deliver you up to tribulation”) while the other two times refer to the specific time period of trouble. Matthew 24:21 says, “there will be great tribulation, such has not been from the beginning of the world”, and Matthew 24:29 says, “immediately after the tribulation of those days”.
Daniel also predicted this time of tribulation, saying that “there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time” (Daniel 12:1). Daniel also shows the length of the tribulation as seven years, during which there will be the abomination of desolation and a disruption of sacrifices during half of that time (Daniel 9:27).a This seven-year time period, with half of it (three and a half years) being of extreme distress, is taught throughout Revelation (see the description in Revelation 7:14 and the three and a half years in Revelation 12:14, Revelation 11:2-3, and Revelation 13:5). Revelation 6-19 provides an extensive view of God’s judgments on earth during this time of tribulation.
It is difficult to completely synchronize the time of the tribulation with the timeline of the Olivet Discourse. Jesus predicts four events in the Olivet Discourse:
- The beginning of birth pains (Matthew 24:4-8, Mark 3:5-8, Luke 21:8-9)
- Events before the end (Matthew 24:9-14, Mark 13:9-13, Luke 21:10-19)
- The great tribulation (Matthew 24:15-28, Mark 13:14-23)
- Jesus Christ’s return (Matthew 24:29-31, Mark 13:24-27, Luke 21:25-28)
The best understanding is that the tribulation encompasses the time of “great tribulation” in Matthew 24:15-28, and the previous events occurred before the beginning of the tribulation.j
When will the church be taken away?
Members of the church can become sharply divided on when the church will be taken away from the world. The New Testament clearly teaches that the Lord will descend from heaven and catch up the believers in the air — both the living and the dead (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). 1 Corinthians 15:50-55 also speaks of this event when the dead will be raised and we all will be changed. This “catching up” is the term that is commonly known as the rapture.
Among believers who hold to the authority of scripture, there are three views on when the Lord Jesus Christ will come to take away those who know Him:
After the Tribulation — at the return of Jesus Christ
This view holds that the Lord Jesus will come and take away the church at the end of the tribulation. The arguments for this view usually consist of the following:
- Belief that the church is promised tribulation (e.g. John 16:33, Romans 12:12). However, this view often confuses the generic term of tribulation or “trouble” with the specific time period of tribulation as prophesied in scripture (see above).
- Belief that the resurrection occurs after the tribulation, as in Revelation 20:5. Revelation 20:5 does say “This is the first resurrection”, but this must be in the context of Revelation 20. For example, we know that the resurrection of Jesus Christ happened before this.
- The presence of the elect during the Tribulation. The Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24-25) contains several references to the elect, including God’s promise to cut short the tribulation “for the sake of the elect”. Therefore, we know that there will be believers during the time of the Tribulation. However, this passage does not specify how long the tribulation believers have been saved. Have they been saved for years or have they recently come to know Jesus Christ? Revelation 7 tells of a great time of witnesses and believers during the great tribulation, and that a “countless multitude” will be saved during that time.
- Personal application of the warnings in Matthew 24. The Olivet Discourse is delivered in the second person, with several warnings such as “let no one deceive you”, “when you see…”, “pray that your flight…”. Jesus was specifically teaching His twelve disciples in this discourse, although the message can be applied to His disciples through history. However, this does not guarantee that all events in the Olivet Discourse apply to all believers. Many will not be around to see those specific events take place.
- The trumpet and the gathering of the elect in Matthew 24:31. This event, after the tribulation, seems to parallel the trumpet and the calling of believers in 1 Thessalonians 4. However, note the following differences:
During the Tribulation
This view holds that the Lord Jesus will come and take away the church during the tribulation. The exact timing of this view varies, but many consider it to be the midpoint, when the harshest judgments increase upon the earth. This view is largely based on separating the Tribulation judgements between “wrath of man” and “wrath of God”. According to this view therefore, the church will be spared the “wrath of God” but not the “wrath of man”.
The most significant problem with this view is that there is no Biblical separation between the “wrath of man” and the “wrath of God”. The judgments during the tribulation increase in severity and frequency, but there is no line between when “man’s judgement” ends and “God’s judgment” begins.
Before the Tribulation
This view holds that the Lord Jesus will come and take away the church before the tribulation. The arguments for this view usually consist of the following:
- The events are different between the rapture and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. In the first, He catches up His children in the air. In the second, He comes down to earth with the armies of Heaven (Revelation 19:11-21).
- The church, while very conspicuous in Revelation 1-3 is absent during the time of tribulation in Revelation 4-18.
- Jesus Christ will reign for a thousand years after His return (Revelation 20:1-6). If the believers are taken away, who is left to populate His kingdom?
- God promises to keep us from the time judgment:
 Stanley D. Toussaint, Behold The King, Kregel Publications, 1980, Matthew 24:15-31, pages 272-278
 H.A. Ironside, Ironside Expository Commentaries, Matthew 24, The King Reveals the Future, Part 1
 H.A. Ironside, Ironside Expository Commentaries, Address 69, Our Lord’s Great Prophetic Discourse, Luke 21:1-24
 H.A. Ironside, Ironside Expository Commentaries, Address 70, The Budding Fig Tree, Luke 21:25-38
 Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, David C. Cook, 2007, Matthew 24:15-31, pages 71-73
 Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, David C. Cook, 2007, Mark 13:14-27, pages 126-128
 Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, David C. Cook, 2007, Luke 21:20-28, pages 210-211
 Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Book V, CHAPTER VI: THE EVENING OF THE THIRD DAY IN PASSION-WEEK, ON THE MOUNT OF OLIVES: DISCOURSES TO THE DISCIPLES CONCERNING THE LAST THINGS (St. Matt. 24; St. Mark 13; St. Luke 21: 5-38; 12: 35-48.), https://www.ccel.org/ccel/edersheim/lifetimes.x.vi.html,
 Doug Bookman, Life of Christ, Audio Series, Lecture 12, https://www.christianity.com/jesus/life-of-jesus/harmony-of-the-gospels/31-jesus-silences-his-enemies-and-the-olivet-discourse.html
 John MacArthur, The Abomination of Desolation, Matthew 24:15, Jun 3, 1984
 John MacArthur, Warnings of Coming Peril, Matthew 24:16-28, Jun 10, 1984
 John MacArthur, The Sign of the Son of Man, Matthew 24:29-31, Jun 17, 1984
 John MacArthur, The MacArthur Bible Commentary, Thomas Nelson, 2005, Matthew 24:15-31, pages 1172-1173
 John MacArthur, The MacArthur Bible Commentary, Thomas Nelson, 2005, Mark 13:14-27, pages 1245-1247
 John MacArthur, The MacArthur Bible Commentary, Thomas Nelson, 2005, Luke 21:20-28, pages 1323-1324
 D.A. Carson, Editor, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, Zondervan, 2010, Matthew 24:15-31
 Tim LaHaye and Ed Hindson, General Editors, The Popular Encyclopedia of Bible Prophecy, Harvest House Publishers, 2004, pages 309-316
[a] Matthew 24:15 says, “So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place”. Daniel mentions this “abomination of desolation” three times in his prophecies: Daniel 11:31 predicts the upcoming persecution and desecration of the temple under Antiochus Epiphanes in 168 B.C. See the post here for more details about this persecution under Antiochus. Daniel 9:27 and Daniel 12:11 also reference the “abomination of desolation”, but in terms of a future event that has not yet been fulfilled. Jesus reinforced the fact that Daniel’s prophecies were still in the future by teaching His disciples to watch for this event.
[b] Matthew 24:15 says, “So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand)”. Of particular interest is the phrase, “let the reader understand”. When we remember that Jesus was speaking to His disciples at this time, the reader here must refer to the student who is reading Daniel’s prophecies. Therefore, we have encouragement to seek out and study Old Testament prophecies — even the more difficult sections!
[c] Matthew 24:22 says, “And if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.” There are three common interpretations to this phrase, “cut short”:
- That God had shortened the length (or intensity) of the days during the Tribulation
- That God had shortened the duration of the Tribulation, from its original length
- That God had fixed the end point of the Tribulation, to ensure that it would be over before all mankind perished
All three interpretations fit the promises of Scripture, although the first (shortening the length of days) is the hardest to grasp. The most plausible explanation is the final option, that God had fixed the end point of the Tribulation, even before these events have occurred.
[d] Matthew 24:24 says, “For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.” There is both a warning and an encouragement in this verse. The warning is about the power and influence that the false prophets will have. They will be able to work actual miracles and will deceive many. But the encouragement is that they will not be able to deceive the elect. God will protect His people from these false prophets.
[e] Matthew 24:26-27 says, “So, if they say to you, ‘Look, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” Jesus Christ’s return will be like lightning across the sky!
This description of lightning related to Christ’s return has caused many interpreters to look at this verse in terms of speed and brevity. Lightning is very fast in the sky, and so they see the Lord’s return as coming in an instant, and then it is gone. This interpretation is further reinforced by the promise that His return will be unexpected (Matthew 24:44).
But there is a better understanding of this analogy of lightning. The emphasis is not on the speed of lightning but its visibility. We know that His return will not be brief, as all the world will see Him returning as they mourn for Him (Matthew 24:30). But the context of Matthew 24:26-27 is teaching the disciples to not believe those who try to deceive you, when they claim to find Christ in the wilderness or in an inner room. When He comes, He will be visible to all, just like a flash of lightning in the sky!1
[f] Matthew 24:28 says, “Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” Many interpreters have interpreted this verse that the corpse represents signs of the times. This is further augmented by the fact that some translations have translated the word “vultures” (aetos, ἀετός) as “eagles” (e.g. KJV, ASV, NKJV). However, a better interpretation of this verse is remembering that the context is all about the false teachers. When there is no true belief, the false teachers will gather like vultures to feast on their dead and rotting flesh of their false religion. Stay away from them!1
[g] What is the sign of the Son of Man in Matthew 24:30?
- The church fathers held that it was the display of the cross in the heavens.
- Others see this as a shining light like the Shekinah glory of the Old Testament.
- Others say that the sign is Christ Himself.
Throughout His earthly ministry, Jesus called Himself the “Son of Man” as a reference and a fulfillment of Daniel 7:13. This passage in Daniel is a clear prediction that dominion of the earth will be given to the Messiah, known as the “Son of Man”, after the tumult of the end times. Therefore, the “sign of the Son of Man” is the specific reference to this prophecy, showing the time when is when it will be fulfilled.1
[h] Matthew 24:30 says, “all the tribes of the earth will mourn”. This may also be part of Israel’s great repentance, as prophesied in Zechariah 12:10. However, note that this mourning in Matthew 24:30 will encompass the entire earth, not just the Jewish people.
[i] Matthew 24:32-34 says, “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” There have been several interpretations of this passage about the lesson of the fig tree in terms of end times prophecy. Of primary focus are the two terms, “the fig tree”, and “this generation”.
Scripture often uses the fig tree as a reference to the nation of Israel (see here). Therefore, many Bible scholars have seen the reference to the fig tree putting out leaves as a restoration of the Nation of Israel. This has been especially significant in the 20th century, as Israel became a nation again in 1948.
Many saw this prophecy as a promise that the generation which saw Israel become a nation would not end before the Lord’s return. However, this has become more difficult in our current time, since it has been over 70 years since 1948. However you calculate the length of “this generation”, the years have passed and yet the Lord continues to wait patiently.
Some common interpretations of this passage:
- The preterist view interprets all of Matthew 24 as having occurred during the first century. Therefore, this view sees this passage as a promise that it will happen within the same generation of Jesus’ lifetime. The problem with this view, however, is that you have to dismiss the cosmic disturbances and the worldwide focus of Matthew 24:29-31 and force them to fit into the first-century events.
- Another view recognizes that Jesus is teaching about future events, but the reference to the fig tree and “this generation” is returning back to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. However, the context of Matthew 24:32-34 (as well as the parallel accounts in Mark and Luke) have been about end times, not the destruction of Jerusalem. Therefore, we cannot reach back in time for a first century application of these verses when the surrounding passage is about future events.
- Another view points out that “this generation” can also describe the current people group. This is similar to the Lord’s rebuke on this “evil and adulterous generation” in Matthew 16:4 (see here). Therefore, according to this view, He is promising that the Jewish people (i.e. “this generation”) will not die out until He returns. This view is consistent with Scripture, but it is a complex explanation to this promise when there are simpler answers.
- The best view is that “this generation” refers to the generation that sees these signs. The generation that sees these signs (e.g. the abomination of desolation, etc.) will not end before He returns.
[j] Some Bible commentators believe that all of the first three events in Matthew 24:4-28 take place during the seven years of tribulation (the first two events are covered in more detail in the previous study). There is some parallel between the troubles of Matthew 24:4-8 and the first five seals of judgment in Revelation 6:1-11. However, the Lord repeats the message during the first two events (Matthew 24:4-14) that the end is not yet (Matthew 24:6-8). He announced that the end times will come after the events of Matthew 24:14. Therefore, the best understanding of these events are that the first two events cover troubles that will precede the tribulation, while the third event covers all seven years of tribulation during the end times.