Examining Matthew 24, Part 1: The Question

by | Sep 25, 2019 | Examining Matthew 24 Series, Videos | 55 comments

As promised in my previous video, we will now discuss what is at times called “Jesus’ prophesy of the last days” which is recorded in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21.  Because this prophecy is so central to the teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses, as it is with all other Adventist religions, I get a lot of questions relating to it, and it was my hope to answer all of them in this one video. However, after analysing the full scope of the topic, I realized that it would not be advisable to try to cover everything in a single video. It would be just too long.  Better to do a short series on the topic.  So in this first video, we’ll lay the foundation for our analysis by attempting to determine what motivated the disciples to formulate the question that led Jesus to provide this prophetic warning.  Understanding the nature of their question is pivotal to grasping the nuances of Jesus’ answer.

As we’ve stated many times before, our goal is to avoid personal interpretations.  Saying, “We don’t know”, is a perfectly acceptable answer, and much better than engaging in wild speculation.  I’m not saying that speculation is wrong, but first stick a big label on it saying, “Here be dragons!” or if you prefer, “Danger, Will Robinson.”

As awakening Christians, we never want our research to end up fulfilling Jesus’ words at Matthew 15:9, “They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.” (NIV)

The problem for those of us coming from the Organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses is that we are bearing the burden of decades of indoctrination.  We have to shirk that off if we are to have any hope of allowing the holy spirit to lead us to truth.

To this end, a good starting point is the realization that what we are about to read was recorded almost 2,000 years ago by men who spoke a different language than we do.  Even if you speak Greek, the Greek you speak is vastly changed from the koine Greek of Jesus’ day.  A language is always shaped by the culture of its speakers, and the culture of the Bible writers is two millennia in the past.

Let us begin.

The prophetic words found in these three gospel accounts came as a result of a question asked of Jesus by four of his apostles.  First, we’ll read the question, but before trying to answer it, we’ll attempt to discern what prompted it.

I will be using Young’s Literal Translation for this part of the discussion.

Matthew 24:3 – “And when he is sitting on the mount of the Olives, the disciples came near to him by himself, saying, ‘Tell us, when shall these be? and what is the sign of thy presence, and of the full end of the age?’”

Mark 13:3, 4 –  “And as he is sitting at the mount of the Olives, over-against the temple, Peter, and James, and John, and Andrew, were questioning him by himself, Tell us when these things shall be? and what is the sign when all these may be about to be fulfilled?’”

Luke 21:7 – “And they questioned him, saying, ‘Teacher, when, then, shall these things be? and what is the sign when these things may be about to happen?’”

Of the three, only Mark gives us the names of the disciples asking the question.  The rest were not in attendance.  Matthew, Mark and Luke heard about it second hand.

What is worthy of note is that Matthew breaks the question into three parts, while the other two do not. What Matthew includes but which is missing from Mark and Luke’s account is the question: “What is the sign of thy presence?”

So, we might ask ourselves why this element is omitted by Mark and Luke?  Another question arises when we compare the way Young’s Literal Translation renders this passage with that from almost every other Bible version. Most replace the word “presence” with the word “coming” or, sometimes, “advent”. Is that significant?

Before we get into that, let’s start by asking ourselves, what prompted them to ask this question?  We’ll try to put ourselves in their shoes.  How did they view themselves?

Well, they were all Jews.  Now the Jews were different from all other peoples.  Back then, everyone was an idol worshipper and they all worshipped a pantheon of Gods.  The Romans worshipped Jupiter and Apollo and Neptune and Mars. In Ephesus, they worshipped a multi-breasted God named Artemis.  The ancient Corinthians believed that their city was founded by a descendent of the Greek god, Zeus. All of these gods are now gone. They’ve faded into the mists of mythology.  They were false gods.

How do you worship a false god?  Worship means submission.  You submit to your god.  Submission means you do what your god tells you to do.  But if your god is an idol, it cannot speak.  So how does it communicate?  You cannot obey a command you never hear, can you?

There are two ways to worship a false God, a mythological god like Jupiter of the Romans.  Either you do what you think he wants you to do, or you do what his priest tells you is his will.  Whether you imagine it or some priest tells you to do it, you are really worshipping men. Worship means submission means obedience.

Now the Jews were also worshipping men. We just read Jesus’ words from Matthew 15:9. However, their religion was different from all others. It was the true religion. Their nation was founded by God and given God’s law.  They didn’t worship idols.  They didn’t have a pantheon of Gods.  And their God, YHWH, Yehowah, Jehovah, whatever you wish,   continues to be worshipped to this very day.

Do you see where we’re going with this?  If you’re a Jew back then, the only place to worship the true God is within Judaism, and the place where the presence of God exists on earth is in the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctuary within the Temple in Jerusalem.  Take all that away and you take away God from the earth. How could you worship God anymore?  Where could you worship God?  If the temple is gone, where can you offer your sacrifices for forgiveness of sins?  The entire scenario would be unthinkable to a Jew of that era.

Yet that is what Jesus had been preaching.  In the three chapters in Matthew preceding their question we read of Jesus’ final four days in the temple, condemning the leaders for hypocrisy, and prophesying that the city and the temple would be destroyed. In fact, it appears the last words he said just before leaving the temple for the final time were these: (This is from the Berean Literal Bible)

(Matthew 23:29-36) “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous; and you say, ‘If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you bear witness to yourselves that you are sons of those having murdered the prophets. You, then, fill up the measure of your fathers. Serpents! Offspring of vipers! How shall you escape from the sentence of Gehenna?”

“Because of this, behold, I send to you prophets and wise men and scribes. Some of them you will kill and will crucify, and some of them you will flog in your synagogues, and will persecute from town to town; so that upon you shall come all the righteous blood being poured out upon the earth, from the blood of the righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.”

Can you see the situation as they would have seen it? You’re a Jew who believes the only place to worship God is in Jerusalem at the temple and now the son of God, the one you recognize as the Messiah, is saying that the people hearing his words will see the end of all things.  Imagine how that would make you feel.

Now, when we are faced with a reality that we, as humans, are unwilling or unable to contemplate, we go into a state of denial. What is important to you? Your religion? Your country? Your family? Imagine that someone you have trusted as beyond reliable were to tell you that the most important thing in your life is going to come to an end and you’ll be around to see it.  How would you handle it? Would you be able to handle it?

It seems the disciples were having a hard time with this because as they started to depart from the temple, they went out of their way to recommend it to Jesus.

Matthew 24:1 CEV – “After Jesus left the temple, his disciples came over and said, ‘Look at all these buildings!’”

Mark 13:1 ESV – And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!””

Luke 21:5 NIV – “Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God.”

“Look Lord. Look at these beautiful buildings and these precious stones.” The subtext is fairly shouting, “Surely these things will not pass away?”

Jesus understood that subtext and knew how to answer them. He said, “Do you see all these things?… Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” (Matthew 24:2 NIV)

Given that context, what do you think they had in mind when they asked Jesus, “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?” (Matthew 24:3 NWT)

While Jesus’ answer wasn’t restricted by their assumptions, he knew what was on their mind, what concerned them, what they were really asking about, and what dangers they would be facing after he left. The Bible says he loved them to the last, and love always looks to benefit the loved one. (John 13:1; 1 Corinthians 13:1-8)

Jesus’ love for his disciples would move him to answer their question in a way that would benefit them.  If their question presumed circumstances that differed from reality, he would not want to lead them on. Nevertheless, there were things he did not know, [pause] and things they were not allowed to know, [pause] and things they could not yet handle knowing. [pause] (Matthew 24:36; Acts 1:7; John 16:12)

To summarize to this point: Jesus spent four days preaching in the temple and during that time he prophesied the end of Jerusalem and the temple.  Just before he left the temple for the last time, he told his listeners that the judgment for all the blood spilled from Abel right down to the last martyred prophet was to come upon that very generation.  That would mark an end to the Jewish system of things; the end of their age. The disciples wanted to know when that was going to happen.

Is that all they expected to happen?


Just before Jesus ascended to heaven, they asked him, “Lord, are you restoring the kingdom to Israel at this time?” (Acts 1:6 NWT)

It seems they accepted that the current Jewish system would end, but they believed a restored Jewish nation would follow under Christ. What they could not grasp at that moment were the time scales involved.  Jesus had told him that he would be going to secure kingly power and then returning, but it seems apparent by the nature of their questions that they thought his return would coincide with the end of the city and its temple.

Did that turn out to be the case?

At this point, it would be advantageous to return to the questions raised earlier concerning the difference between Matthew’s account of the question and that of Mark and Luke.  Matthew adds the phrase, “What will be the sign of your presence?”  Why? And why do almost all translations render this as ‘the sign of your coming’ or ‘the sign of your advent’?

Are these synonymous terms?

We can answer the first question by answering the second.  And make no mistake, getting this wrong has proven to be spiritually devastating before, so let’s try to get it right this time.

When Young’s Literal Translation as well as the New World Translation by Jehovah’s Witnesses render the Greek word, parousia, as “presence” they are being literal.  I believe Jehovah’s Witnesses are doing this for the wrong reason.  They are focusing on the common usage of the word, which literally means “being beside” (HELPS Word-studies 3952) Their doctrinal bias would have us believe that Jesus has been invisibly present since 1914. To them, this is not the second coming of Christ, which they believe refers to his return at Armageddon.  Thus, for Witnesses, Jesus came, or will come, three times. Once as the Messiah, again in 1914 as the Davidic King (Acts 1:6) and a third time at Armageddon.

But exegesis requires us to hear what was said with the ear of a first century disciple.  There is another meaning to parousia which is not found in English.

This is often the dilemma that the translator faces.  I worked as a translator in my youth, and even though I only had to deal with two modern languages, I would still run into this problem. Sometimes a word in one language has a meaning for which there is no precise correspondent word in the target language.  A good translator must render the writer’s meaning and ideas, not his words. Words are merely the tools he uses, and if the tools prove inadequate, the translation will suffer.

Let me give you an example.

“When I shave, I do not use scum, froth, nor spume.  I only use lather.”

“Cuando me afeito, no uso espuma, espuma, ni espuma.  Solo uso espuma.”

As an English speaker, you immediately understand the differences represented by these four words.  Though fundamentally, they are all referring to foam of some kind, they are not the same.  However, in Spanish, those nuanced differences must be explained by the use of a descriptive phrase or adjective.

This is why a prefer a literal translation for study purposes, because it takes you one step closer to the meaning of the original.  Of course, there has to be a willingness to understand, so pride has to be thrown out the window.

I get people writing in all the time making strong assertions based on their understanding of one translated word taken from their beloved Bible version.  This is not the way to understand Scripture.

For example, someone who apparently wanted a reason to find fault with the Bible cited 1 John 4:8 which says that “God is love”.  Then that person cited 1 Corinthians 13:4 that says, “love is not jealous.”  Finally, Exodus 34:14 was cited where Yehowah refers to himself as “a jealous God.”  How could a loving God also be a jealous God if love is not jealous?  The shortcoming in this line of simplistic reasoning is the presumption that the English, Greek and Hebrew words are all completely synonymous, which they are not.

We cannot understand any document, let alone one written thousands of years ago in an ancient language, without understanding the textual, historical, cultural, and personal context.

In the case of Matthew’s use of parousia, it is the culture context we must consider.

Strong’s Concordance gives the definition of parousia as “a presence, a coming”. In English, these terms bear some relation to each other, but they are not strictly synonymous. Additionally, Greek has a perfectly good word for “coming” in eleusis, which Strong’s defines as “a coming, arrival, advent”.  So, if Matthew meant “coming” as most translations imply, why did he use parousia and not eleusis?

Bible scholar, William Barclay, has this to say about one ancient use of the word parousia.

“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.”

(New Testament Words by William Barclay, p. 223)

With that in mind, let’s read Acts 7:52.  We’ll go with the English Standard Version this time.

“Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered,”

Here, the Greek word is not “presence” (parousia) but “coming” (eleusis).  Jesus came as the Christ or Messiah when he was baptized by John and anointed with holy spirit by God, but even though he was physically present then, his kingly presence (parousia) had yet to begin.  He had not yet begun reigning as King. Thus, Luke in Acts 7:52 refers to the coming of the Messiah or Christ, but not the presence of the King.

So when the disciples asked about Jesus’ presence, they were asking, “What will be the sign of your arrival as King?”, or, “When will you start to rule over Israel?”

The fact that they thought the kingly rule of Christ would coincide with the destruction of the temple, doesn’t mean it had to. The fact that they wanted a sign of his arrival or advent as King doesn’t mean they were going to get one.  This question wasn’t inspired of God.  When we say the Bible is inspired of God, that doesn’t mean that every work written down in it comes from God.  When the Devil tempted Jesus, Yehowah wasn’t putting words into the mouth of Satan.

When we say that the Bible is inspired of God, that doesn’t mean that every word written down in it comes from God. When the Devil tempted Jesus, Yehowah wasn’t putting words into the mouth of Satan. When we say that the Bible account is inspired of God, we mean that it contains truthful accounts alongside the actual words  of God.

Witnesses say that Jesus began to rule in 1914 as King. If so, where is the evidence?  The presence of a king was marked in a Roman province by the date of the arrival of the emperor, because when the King was present, things changed, laws were enacted, projects were initiated. Emperor Nero was enthroned in 54 C.E. but for the Corinthians, his presence began in 66 C.E. when he visited the city and proposed the building of the Corinth Canal.  It didn’t happen because he was assassinated shortly thereafter, but you get the idea.

So, where’s the evidence Jesus kingly presence began 105 years ago? For that matter, when some say that his presence began in 70 C.E., where is the evidence?  Christian apostasy, the dark ages, the 100-Years War, the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition—doesn’t seem like the presence of a king I would want ruling over me.

Is the historical evidence leading us to the conclusion that the presence of Christ, although mentioned in the same question, is a separate event from the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple?

So, was Jesus able to given them a heads-up as to the nearness of the end of the Jewish system of things?

But some might object, “Didn’t Jesus become king in 33 C.E.?”  It appears so, but Psalm 110:1-7 talks about his sitting at God’s right hand until his enemies are subjected under his feet.  Again, with parousia we’re not talking about the enthronement of a king necessarily, but the visitation of the King. Jesus was likely enthroned in heaven in 33 C.E., but his visitation to the earth as King is yet to come.

There are those who believe that all of the prophecies delivered by Jesus, including those found in Revelation, were fulfilled in the first century.  This school of theology is known as Preterism and those who advocate it are called Preterists.  Personally, I don’t like the label. And don’t like anything that allows a human to easily pigeonhole someone into a category. Throwing labels at people is the antithesis of critical thinking.

The fact that some of Jesus’ words were fulfilled in the first century is beyond any reasonable question, as we’ll see in the next video. The question is whether all of his words apply to the first century. Some argue that to be the case, while others postulate the idea of a dual fulfillment.  A third alternative is that parts of the prophecy were fulfilled in the first century while other parts have yet to come true.

Having exhausted our examination of the question, we will now turn to the answer given by Christ.  We will do that in part two of this video series.

Meleti Vivlon

Articles by Meleti Vivlon.




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