It would be hard to find another passage of the Bible that has been more misunderstood, more misapplied than Matthew 24:3-31.
Down through the centuries, these verses have been used to convince believers that we can identify the last days and know by signs that the Lord is near. To prove that this is not the case, we have written a considerable number of articles on the various aspects of this prophecy on our sister site, Beroean Pickets – Archive, examining the meaning of “this generation” (vs. 34), determining who the “he” is in vs. 33, breaking down the three-part question of vs. 3, demonstrating that the so-called signs of verses 4-14 are anything but, and exploring the meaning of verses 23 thru 28. However, there has never been a single comprehensive article that attempted to bring it all together. It is our sincere hope that this article will fill the need.
Do We Have a Right to Know?
The first issue we have to address is our own, quite-natural eagerness to see Christ return. This is nothing new. Even his immediate disciples felt this way and on the day of his ascension, they asked: “Lord, are you restoring the kingdom to Israel at this time?” (Acts 1:6)[i] Nevertheless, he explained that such knowledge was, to put it bluntly, none of our business:
“He said to them: ‘It does not belong to you to know the times or seasons that the Father has placed in his own jurisdiction.’” (Ac 1:7)
This was not the only time he informed them that such knowledge was off-limits:
“Concerning that day and hour nobody knows, neither the angels of the heavens nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mt 24:36)
“Keep on the watch, therefore, because you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” (Mt 24:42)
“On this account, you too prove yourselves ready, because the Son of man is coming at an hour that you do not think to be it.” (Mt 24:44)
Notice that these three quotes come from chapter 24 of Matthew; the very chapter that contains what many say are signs to show that Christ is near. Let’s reason on the incongruity of this for a moment. Would our Lord tell us—not once, not twice, but three times—that we cannot know when he is coming; that even he didn’t know when he was coming back; that he would actually return at a time when we least expected it; all the while telling us just how to figure out the very thing we are not supposed to know? That sounds more like the premise for a Monty Python sketch than sound Bible theology.
Then we have the historical evidence. Interpreting Matthew 24:3-31 as a means to predict Christ’s return has repeatedly led to disillusionment, disappointment, and the shipwreck of faith of millions right down to the present day. Would Jesus send us a mixed message? Would any prophecy of his fail to come true, multiple times, before finally being fulfilled? For that is precisely what we must admit has happened if we are to continue to believe that his words at Matthew 24:3-31 are supposed to be signs that we are in the last days and that he’s about to return.
The reality is that we Christians have been seduced by our own eagerness to know the unknowable; and in so doing, we have read into Jesus’ words that which is simply not there.
I grew up believing that Matthew 24:3-31 spoke of signs signalling that we are in the last days. I allowed my life to be shaped by this belief. I felt I was part of an elite group that knew things hidden from the rest of the world. Even when the date for Christ’s arrival kept getting pushed back—as each new decade rolled by—I excused such changes as “new light” revealed by the Holy Spirit. Finally, in the mid-1990s, when my credulity had been stretched to the breaking point, I found relief when my particular brand of Christianity dropped the whole “this generation” calculation.[ii] However, it wasn’t until 2010, when the fabricated and unscriptural doctrine of two overlapping generations was introduced, that I finally began to see the need to examine the Scriptures for myself.
One of the great discoveries I made was the Bible-study methodology known as exegesis. I slowly learned to abandon bias and preconception and allow the Bible to interpret itself. Now it may strike some as ridiculous to speak of an inanimate object, like a book, as being able to interpret itself. I would concur were we speaking of any other book, but the Bible is the Word of God, and it is not inanimate, but alive.
“For the Word of God is alive and exerts power and is sharper than any two-edged sword and pierces even to the dividing of soul and spirit, and of joints from the marrow, and is able to discern thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And there is not a creation that is hidden from his sight, but all things are naked and openly exposed to the eyes of the one to whom we must give an account.” (He 4:12, 13)
Are these verses speaking about God’s Word the Bible, or about Jesus Christ? Yes! The line between the two is blurred. The spirit of Christ guides us. This spirit existed even before Jesus came to the earth, because Jesus pre-existed as The Word of God. (John 1:1; Rev. 19:13)
Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who foretold the grace that would come to you, searched and investigated carefully, 11trying to determine the time and setting to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow. (1 Peter 1:10, 11 BSB)[iii]
Before Jesus was born, “the spirit of Christ” was in the ancient prophets, and it is in us if we pray for it and then examine the Scriptures with humility but without an agenda based on preconceived ideas or the teachings of men. This method of study includes more than reading and considering the full context of the passage. It also takes into consideration the historical circumstances and viewpoint of the characters taking part in the original discussion. But all of that is ineffectual unless we also open ourselves to the guiding of the Holy Spirit. This is not the possession of an elite few, but of all Christians who willingly submit themselves to the Christ. (You cannot submit yourself to Jesus and to men. You cannot serve two masters.) This goes beyond simple, academic research. This spirit causes us to bear witness about our Lord. We cannot help but to speak about what the spirit reveals to us.
“…And he added, “These are true words that come from God. So I fell at his feet to worship him. But he told me, “Do not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers who rely on the testimony of Jesus. Worship God! For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” (Re 19:9, 10 BSB)[iv]
The Problematic Question
With this in mind, our discussion begins in verse 3 of Matthew 24. Here the disciples ask a three-part question.
“While he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples approached him privately, saying: “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your presence and of the conclusion of the system of things?”” (Mt 24:3)
Why are they sitting on the Mount of Olives? What is the sequence of events leading up to this question? I certainly wasn’t asked out of the blue.
Jesus had just spent the last four days preaching in the temple. On his final departure, he’d condemned the city and the temple to destruction, holding them accountable for all the righteous blood spilled going all the way back to Abel. (Mt 23:33-39) He made it very clear that the ones he was addressing were those who would pay for the sins of the past and present.
“Truly I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.” (Mt 23:36)
Upon leaving the temple, his disciples, probably disturbed by his words (For what Jew didn’t love the city and its temple, the pride of all Israel), pointed out to him the magnificent works of Jewish architecture. In reply he said:
“Do you not see all these things? Truly I say to you, by no means will a stone be left here upon a stone and not be thrown down.” (Mt 24:2)
So when they reached the Mount of Olives, later that day, all of this was very much on the mind of his disciples. Hence, they asked:
- “When will these things be?”
- “What will be the sign of your presence?”
- “What will be the sign…of the conclusion of the system of things?”
Jesus had just told them, twice, that “all these things” would be destroyed. So when they asked him about “these things”, they were asking in the context of his own words. They were not asking about Armageddon for instance. The word “Armageddon” wouldn’t come into use for another 70 years when John wrote down his Revelation. (Re 16:16) They were not imagining some sort of dual fulfillment, some antitypical invisible fulfillment. He’d just told them the home and their cherished place of worship was going to be destroyed, and they wanted to know when. Plain and simple.
You will also notice that he said that “all these things” would come upon “this generation”. So if he’s answering the question about when “these things” will occur and in the course of that answer he uses again the phrase “this generation”, would they not conclude that he was talking about the same generation he’d referred to earlier in the day?
What about the second part of the question? Why did the disciples use the term “your presence” instead of “your coming” or “your return”?
This word for “presence” in Greek is parousía. While it can mean the same thing it does in English (“the state or fact of existing, occurring, or being present in a place or thing”) there is another meaning in Greek that does not exist in the English equivalent. Pauousia was “used in the east as a technical expression for the royal visit of a king, or emperor. The word means literally ‘the being beside,’ thus, ‘the personal presence’ ” (K. Wuest, 3, Bypaths, 33). It implied a time of change.
William Barclay in New Testament Words (p. 223) says:
Further, one of the commonest things is that provinces dated a new era from the parousia of the emperor. Cos dated a new era from the parousia of Gaius Caesar in A.D. 4, as did Greece from the parousia of Hadrian in A.D. 24. A new section of time emerged with the coming of the king.
Another common practice was to strike new coins to commemorate the visitation of the king. Hadrian’s travels can be followed by the coins which were struck to commemorate his visits. When Nero visited Corinth coins were struck to commemorate his adventus, advent, which is the Latin equivalent of the Greek parousia. It was as if with the coming of the king a new set of values had emerged.
Parousia is sometimes used of the ‘invasion’ of a province by a general. It is so used of the invasion of Asia by Mithradates. It describes the entrance on the scene by a new and conquering power.
How can we know which sense the disciples had in mind?
Oddly enough, those who would promote an incorrect interpretation, that of an invisible presence, have unwittingly provided the answer.
THE ATTITUDE OF THE APOSTLES
When they asked Jesus, “What will be the sign of your presence?” they did not know that his future presence would be invisible. (Matt. 24:3) Even after his resurrection, they asked: “Lord, are you restoring the kingdom to Israel at this time?” (Acts 1:6) They looked for a visible restoring of it. However, their inquiry showed that they were keeping in mind God’s kingdom by Christ as being close. (w74 1/15 p. 50)
But not yet having received holy spirit, they did not appreciate that he would not sit on an earthly throne; they had no idea that he would rule as a glorious spirit from the heavens and therefore did not know that his second presence would be invisible. (w64 9/15 pp. 575-576)
Following this reasoning, consider what the apostles knew at that moment in time: Jesus had already told them that he would be with them whenever two or three were gathered in his name. (Mt 18:20) Additionally, if they were only asking about a simple presence as we understand the term today, he could have answered them as he did shortly thereafter with the words: “I am with you all the days until the conclusion of the system of things.” (Mt 28:20) They wouldn’t need a sign for that. Are we really to believe that Jesus intended us to look at wars, earthquakes, and famines and say, “Ah, more proof that Jesus is with us”?
It is also noteworthy that of the three gospels reporting this question, only Matthew uses the word parousia. This is significant because only Matthew speaks of “the kingdom of the heavens”, a phrase he uses 33 times. His focus is very much on the kingdom of God which is to come, so to him, Christ’s parousia would mean the king has come and things are about to change.
Before moving past verse 3, we need to understand what the disciples understood by “the conclusion of the system of things” or as most translations put it, “the end of the age”; in Greek, Synteleias tou Aiōnos). We might consider that the destruction of Jerusalem with its temple marked the end of an age, and so it did. But is that what those disciples had in mind when they asked their question?
It was Jesus who introduced the concept of the end of the system of things or age. So they weren’t inventing new ideas here, but asking only for some indication as to when the end he’d already spoken of was to come. Now Jesus never spoke of three or more systems of things. He only ever referred to two. He either spoke of the present one, and of that which was to come.
“For example, whoever speaks a word against the Son of man, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the holy spirit, it will not be forgiven him, no, not in this system of things nor in that to come.” (Mt 12:32)
“. . .Jesus said to them: “The children of this system of things marry and are given in marriage, 35 but those who have been counted worthy of gaining that system of things and the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.” (Lu 20:34, 35)
“. . .And his master commended the steward, though unrighteous, because he acted with practical wisdom; for the sons of this system of things are wiser in a practical way toward their own generation than the sons of the light are.” (Lu 16:8)
“. . .who will not get a hundredfold now in this period of time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and fields, with persecutions, and in the coming system of things everlasting life.” (Mr 10:30)
Jesus spoke of a system of things that would come after the current one ended. The system of things in Jesus’ day included more than the nation of Israel. It included Rome, as well as the rest of the world that they knew.
Both Daniel the prophet, to whom Jesus alludes in Matthew 24:15, as well as Jesus himself, foretold that the destruction of the city would come at the hand of others, an army. (Luke 19:43; Daniel 9:26) If they listened and obeyed Jesus’ exhortation to “use discernment”, they would have realized that the city would end at the hands of a human army. They would reasonably assume this to be Rome since Jesus told them that the wicked generation of their day would see the end, and it was unlikely that another nation would conquer and replace Rome in the short time left. (Mt 24:34) So Rome, as the destroyer of Jerusalem, would continue to exist after “all these things” came to pass. Hence, the end of the age was distinct from “all these things”.
A Sign or Signs?
One thing is certain, there was only one sign (Greek: sémeion). They asked for a single sign in verse 3 and Jesus gave them a single sign in verse 30. They didn’t ask for signs (plural) and Jesus didn’t give them more than they asked for. He did speak of signs in the plural, but in that context he was speaking of false signs.
“For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will give great signs and wonders so as to mislead, if possible, even the chosen ones.” (Mt 24:24)
So if someone starts talking about “great signs”, he’s likely a false prophet. Moreover, trying to get around the lack of plurality by claiming Jesus was talking about a “composite sign” is just a ploy to avoid being marked as one of the false prophets he warned us about. (Since those using the phrase “composite sign” have—on multiple occasions—had their predictions fail, they’ve already shown themselves to be false prophets. No further discussion is needed.)
Whether the disciples thought that the one event (the destruction of the City) would be quickly followed by the other (the return of Christ) we can only guess. What we do know is that Jesus understood the difference. He knew of the injunction against knowing anything about the timing of his return in Kingly power. (Acts 1:7) However, there was apparently no similar restriction on indications of the approach of the other event, the destruction of Jerusalem. In fact, even though they asked for no sign of its approach, their survival depended on their recognizing the significance of events.
“Now learn this illustration from the fig tree: Just as soon as its young branch grows tender and sprouts its leaves, you know that summer is near. 33 Likewise also you, when you see all these things, know that he is near at the doors.” (Mt 24:32, 33)
“However, when you catch sight of the disgusting thing that causes desolation standing where it should not be (let the reader use discernment). . .” (Mr 13:14)
“Truly I say to you that this generation will by no means pass away until all these things happen. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will by no means pass away.” (Mt 24:34, 35)
Besides giving them the advantage of a restricted timeframe (“this generation”) he also showed how they would see indications of its approach. These precursors were going to be so self-evident that he didn’t have to spell them out beforehand, save for the one the presaged their escape: the appearance of the disgusting thing.
The timeframe for acting following the appearance of this singular sign was very restricted and required immediate action once the way was cleared as foretold in Mt 24:22. Here’s the parallel account as delivered by Mark:
“then let those in Ju·deʹa begin fleeing to the mountains. 15 Let the man on the housetop not come down nor go inside to take anything out of his house; 16 and let the man in the field not return to the things behind to pick up his outer garment. 17 Woe to the pregnant women and those nursing a baby in those days!. . .In fact, unless Jehovah had cut short the days, no flesh would be saved. But on account of the chosen ones whom he has chosen, he has cut short the days.” (Mr 13:14-18, 20)
Even if they had not asked the question they did, Jesus would have had to find an opportunity to impart this vital, life-saving information to his disciples. However, his return as King requires no such specific instruction. Why? Because our salvation does not depend on our moving to some particular geographic location at the drop of a hat, or performing some other highly specific activity such as coating the doorposts with blood. (Ex 12:7) Our salvation will be out of our hands.
“And he will send out his angels with a great trumpet sound, and they will gather his chosen ones together from the four winds, from one extremity of the heavens to their other extremity.” (Mt 24:31)
So let us not be deceived by men who would tell us they are holders of secret knowledge. That only if we listen to them will we be saved. Men who use words like:
All of us must be ready to obey any instructions we may receive, whether these appear sound from a strategic or human standpoint or not. (w13 11/15 p. 20 par. 17)
The reason Jesus didn’t give us instructions for our salvation, as he did to his first century disciples, is because when he returns our salvation will be out of our hands. It will be the job of powerful angels to see that we are harvested, gathered as wheat into his storehouse. (Mt 3:12; 13:30)
Harmony Requires There Be No Contradiction
Let us go back and consider Mt 24:33: “…when you see all these things, know that he is near at the doors.”
Proponents of “signs of the last days” point to this and claim that Jesus is referring to himself in the third person. But if that were the case, then he is directly contradicting his warning made just eleven verses farther on:
“On this account, you too prove yourselves ready, because the Son of man is coming at an hour that you do not think to be it.” (Mt 24:44)
How can we know that he is near while simultaneously believing that he can’t be near? It makes no sense. Therefore, the “he” in this verse cannot be the Son of man. Jesus was speaking of someone else, someone spoken of in Daniel’s writings, someone connected with “all these things” (the destruction of the city). So let’s look to Daniel for the answer.
“And the city and the holy place the people of a leader that is coming will bring to their ruin. And the end of it will be by the flood. And until [the] end there will be war; what is decided upon is desolations.…“And upon the wing of disgusting things there will be the one causing desolation; and until an extermination, the very thing decided upon will go pouring out also upon the one lying desolate.” (Da 9:26, 27)
Whether the “he” who is near at the doors turned out to be Cestius Gallus, whose abortive attempt to breach the temple gate (the holy place) in 66 C.E. gave the Christians the opportunity they needed to obey Jesus and flee, or whether the “he” turns out to be General Titus who in 70 C.E. finally took the city, killed almost all its inhabitants, and razed the temple to the ground, is somewhat academic. What matters is that Jesus’ words proved true, and gave the Christians a timely warning they could use to save themselves.
The Warnings That Became Signs
Jesus well knew his disciples. He knew their shortcomings and their weaknesses; their desire for prominence and their eagerness for the end to come. (Luke 9:46; Mt 26:56; Acts 1:6)
Faith doesn’t need to see with the eyes. It sees with the heart and mind. Many of his disciples would learn to have this level of faith, but sadly not all would. He knew that the weaker one’s faith is, the more reliance one tends to put on things that can be seen. He lovingly provided us with a series of warnings to fight this tendency.
In fact, instead of immediately answering their question, he started right off with a warning:
“Look out that nobody misleads you,” (Mt 24:4)
He then foretells that a virtual army of false Christs—self-proclaimed anointed ones—would come and mislead many of the disciples. These would point to signs and wonders to fool even the chosen ones. (Mt 24:23) Wars, famines, pestilences, and earthquakes are fear-inspiring events, to be sure. When people suffer some inexplicable catastrophe like a pestilence (e.g. the Black Plague that decimated the world’s population in the 14th century) or an earthquake, they look for meaning where there is none. Many will jump to the conclusion that it is a sign from God. This makes them fertile ground for any unscrupulous man who proclaims himself to be a prophet.
True followers of the Christ must rise above this human fraility. They must remember his words: “See that you are not alarmed, for these things must take place, but the end is not yet.” (Mt 24:6) To emphasize the inevitability of war, he goes on to say:
“For [gar] nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be food shortages and earthquakes in one place after another. 8 All these things are a beginning of pangs of distress.” (Mt 24:7, 8)
Some have tried to turn this warning into a composite sign. They suggest that Jesus changes his tone here, from a warning in vs. 6 to a composite sign in vs. 7. They claim he is not talking about the common occurrence of wars, earthquakes, famines, and pestilences,[v] but of some type of escalation that makes these events especially significant. However, the language does not allow for that conclusion. Jesus starts this warning off with the connective gar, which in Greek—as in English—is a means of continuing the thought, not contrasting it with a new one.[vi]
Yes, the world that would come after Jesus ascended to heaven would eventually be filled with wars, famines, earthquakes and pestilences. His disciples would have to suffer though these “pangs of distress” along with the rest of the population. But he does not give these as signs of his return. We can say this with certainty because the history of the Christian congregation gives us the evidence. Time and again, both well-intentioned and unscrupulous men have convinced their fellow believers that they can know the nearness of the end by virtue of these so-called signs. Their predictions have always failed to come true, resulting in great disillusionment and a shipwreck of faith.
Jesus loves his disciples. (John 13:1) He would not give us false signs that would so mislead and distress us. The disciples asked him a question and he answered it, but he gave them more than they asked for. He gave them what they needed. He gave them multiple warnings to be on the watch for false Christs proclaiming false signs and wonders. That so many chose to ignore these warnings is a sad comment on sinful human nature.
An Invisible Parousia?
I’m sorry to say that I was one of those who ignored Jesus’ warning for most of my life. I gave ear to “artfully contrived false stories” about the invisible presence of Jesus taking place in 1914. Yet Jesus even warned us about such things as this:
“Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look! Here is the Christ,’ or, ‘There!’ do not believe it. 24 For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will perform great signs and wonders so as to mislead, if possible, even the chosen ones. 25 Look! I have forewarned you. 26 Therefore, if people say to you, ‘Look! He is in the wilderness,’ do not go out; ‘Look! He is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it.” (Mt 24:23-25)
William Miller, whose work gave birth to the Adventist movement, used numbers from the Book of Daniel to calculate that Christ would return in either 1843 or 1844. When that failed, there was great disappointment. However, another Adventist, Nelson Barbour, took a lesson from that failure and when his own prediction that Christ would return in 1874 failed, he changed it to an invisible return and proclaimed success. Christ was “out in the wilderness” or hidden “in the inner rooms”.
Charles Taze Russell bought into Barbour’s chronology and accepted the 1874 invisible presence. He taught that 1914 would mark the start of the great tribulation, which he viewed as an antitypical fulfillment of Jesus’ words at Matthew 24:21.
It is distressing to have lost years in the service of an Organization built on such artfully contrived false stories, but we must not let it get us down. Rather we rejoice that Jesus has seen fit to awaken us to the truth that sets us free. With that joy, we can move forward bearing witness to our King. We do not concern ourselves with foreknowing that which is outside of our jurisdiction. We will know when the time comes, because the evidence will be undeniable. Jesus said:
“For just as the lightning comes out of the east and shines over to the west, so the presence of the Son of man will be. 28 Wherever the carcass is, there the eagles will be gathered together.” (Mt 24:27, 28)
Everyone sees the lightning that flashes in the sky. Everyone can see eagles circling, even at a great distance. Only the blind need someone to tell them that lightning has flashed, but we are no longer blind.
When Jesus returns, it won’t be a matter of interpretation. The world will see him. Most will beat themselves in grief. We will rejoice. (Re 1:7; Lu 21:25-28)
So we finally get to the sign. The disciples asked for a single sign in Matthew 24:3 and Jesus gave them a single sign in Matthew 24:30:
“Then the sign of the Son of man will appear in heaven, and all the tribes of the earth will beat themselves in grief, and they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” (Mt 24:30)
To put this in modern terms, Jesus told them, ‘You’ll see me when you see me’. The sign of his presence is his presence. There is to be no early warning system.
Jesus said that he would come as a thief. A thief doesn’t give you a sign that he is coming. You get up in the middle of the night surprised by an unexpected sound to see him standing in your living room. That’s the only “sign” you get of his presence.
Slacking the Hand
In all this, we have just glossed over an important truth that demonstrates that not only is Matthew 24:3-31 not a prophecy of the last days, but that there can be no such prophecy. There can be no prophecy to give us precursor signs so as to know that Christ is near. Why? Because that would be detrimental to our faith.
We walk by faith, not by sight. (2 Co 5:7) However, if there were really to be signs foretelling Christ’s return, it might well be an inducement to slack the hand, as it were. The exhortation, “keep on the watch, for YOU do not know when the master of the house is coming”, would be largely meaningless. (Mr 13:35)
The urging recorded at Romans 13:11-14 would have little significance if Christians down through the centuries could know whether Christ was near or not. Our not knowing is critical, for we all possess a very finite lifespan, and if we are to change that to an infinite one, we must remain awake always, for we do not know when our Lord is coming.
In answer to the question asked him, Jesus told his disciples to be careful not to be disturbed by catastrophic events like wars, famines, earthquakes and pestilences, interpreting them as divine signs. He also warned them about men who would come, acting as false prophets, using signs and wonders to convince them that Jesus has already returned invisibly. He told them that the destruction of Jerusalem would be something they could see coming and that it would occur within the lifespan of people then alive. Finally, he told them (and us) that no one can know when he would return. However, we need not worry, because our salvation does not require us to foreknow his coming. The angels will take care of harvesting the wheat at the appointed time.
An insightful reader wrote in to ask about verse 29 which I’d neglected to comment on. Specifically, what is the “tribulation” that it refers to when it says: “Immediately after the tribulation of those days…”
I think the problem stems from the Lord’s use of the word in verse 21. The word is thlipsis in Greek means “persecution, affliction, distress”. The immediate context of verse 21 indicates he is referring to events relating to the first century destruction of Jerusalem. However, when he says “immediately after the tribulation [thlipis] of those days”, does he mean that same tribulation? If so, then we should expect to see historical evidence of the sun being darkened, and the moon not giving its light, and the stars will falling from heaven.” Furthermore, since he continues without a break, the people of the first century should have also seen “the sign of the Son of man…appear in heaven” and they should have been beating themselves in grief as they saw Jesus “coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.”
None of this happened, so in vs. 29, it appears he couldn’t be referring to the same tribulation he references in vs. 21.
We should be mindful of the fact that between the description of the destruction of the Jewish system of things in vss. 15-22 and the coming of Christ in vss. 29-31, there are verses that deal with false Christs and false prophets misleading even the chosen ones, the children of God. These verses conclude, in vs. 27 and 28, with the assurance that the presence of the Lord would be widely visible to all.
So starting in verse 23, Jesus describes conditions that would follow the destruction of Jerusalem and which would end when his presence manifests itself.
“. . .For just as the lightning comes out of the east and shines over to the west, so the presence of the Son of man will be. 28 Wherever the carcass is, there the eagles will be gathered together.” (Mt 24:27, 28)
Remember that thlipis means “persecution, affliction, distress”. The presence of false Christs and false prophets down through the centuries has brought persecution, affliction and distress to true Christians, severely testing and refining the children of God. Just look at the persecution we endure as Jehovah’s Witnesses, because we reject the teachings of false prophets that Jesus has already returned in 1914. It would seem that the tribulation Jesus refers to in vs. 29 is the same one that John refers to at Revelation 7:14.
There are 45 references to tribulation in the Christian Scriptures and virtually all of them refer to the trails and testing that Christians endure as a refining process to become worthy of the Christ. Immediately after that centuries-long tribulation ends, the sign of the Christ will appear in the heavens.
This is my take on things. I can’t find anything that fits better though I’m open to suggestions.
[i] Unless otherwise stated, all bible citations are taken from the New World Translation of the Holy Bible (1984 Reference Edition).
[ii] Jehovah’s Witnesses thought that the length of the last days, which they still teach began in 1914, could be measured by calculating the length of the generation mentioned in Matthew 24:34. They continue to hold this belief.
[iii] I quote from the Berean Study Bible because the New World Translation doesn’t include the phrase “spirit of Christ” but instead substitutes the inaccurate rendering “”the spirit within them”. It does this even though the Kingdom Interlinear upon which the NWT is based clearly reads “spirit of Christ” (Greek: Pneuma Christou).
[iv] Berean Study Bible
[v] Luke 21:11 adds “in one place after another pestilences”.
[vi] NAS Exhaustive Concordance defines gar as “for, indeed (a conjunc. used to express cause, explanation, inference or continuation)”
[vii] Watch Tower, December 1, 1933, page 362: “In the year 1914 that due time of waiting came to an end. Christ Jesus received the authority of the kingdom and was sent forth by Jehovah to rule amidst his enemies. The year 1914, therefore, marks the second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, the King of glory.”