Welcome back. This is part 10 of our exegetical analysis of Matthew 24.
Up to this point, we have spent a lot of time cutting away all the false teachings and false prophetic interpretations that have done so much damage to the faith of millions of sincere and trusting Christians over the past two centuries. We have come to see the wisdom of our Lord in warning us about the pitfalls of interpreting common events such as wars or earthquakes as signs of his coming. We’ve seen how he provided escape for his disciples from the destruction of Jerusalem by giving them tangible signs to go by. But one thing we haven’t tackled is the one thing which most affects us personally: his presence; his return as King. When will Jesus Christ return to rule over the earth and reconcile the whole human race back into the family of God?
Jesus knew that human nature would create within all of us an anxiety to want to know the answer to that question. He also knew just how vulnerable that would make us to being misled by unscrupulous men spouting lies. Even now, this late in the game, fundamentalist Christians like Jehovah’s Witnesses think the coronavirus pandemic is a sign that Jesus is about to appear. They read Jesus’ words of warning, but somehow, they twist them into the very opposite of what he is saying.
Jesus also warned us repeatedly about falling prey to false prophets and false anointed ones. His warnings continue on into the verses we are about to consider, but before we read them, I want to do a little thought experiment.
Can you imagine for a moment what it would be like to be a Christian in Jerusalem in 66 C.E. when the city was surrounded by the greatest military force of the day, the virtually undefeated army of Rome? Put yourself there now. From the walls of the city, you can see the Romans have built a fence of pointed stakes to keep you from escaping, just as Jesus foretold. When you see the Romans form their Tortuga shield formation so as to prepare the temple gate to be burned prior to their invasion, you remember Jesus’ words about the disgusting thing standing in the holy place. Everything is happening as foretold, but escape seems impossible. The people are deflated and there is much talk of simply surrendering, yet that would not fulfill the words of the Lord.
Your mind is in a whirl of confusion. Jesus told you to escape when you saw these signs, but how? Escape now seems to be an impossibility. You go to bed that night, but you sleep fitfully. You are consumed with anxiety on how to save your family.
In the morning, something miraculous has happened. Word comes that the Romans have gone. Inexplicably, the entire Roman army has folded their tents and fled. Jewish military forces are in hot pursuit. It is a great victory! The mighty Roman army has tucked tail and run. Everyone is saying that the God of Israel has performed a miracle. But you, as a Christian, know otherwise. Still, do you really need to flee in such a hurry? Jesus said not even to go back to retrieve your things, but to get out of the city without delay. Yet you have your ancestral home, your business, many possessions to consider. Then there are your unbelieving relatives.
There is much talk that the Messiah has come. That now, the Kingdom of Israel will be restored. Even some of your Christian brothers are talking about this. If the Messiah has indeed come, then why flee now?
Do you wait, or do you leave? This is no trivial decision. It is a life-and-death choice. Then, the words of Jesus come back to your mind.
“Then if anyone says to YOU, ‘Look! Here is the Christ,’ or, ‘There!’ do not believe it. 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. Look! I have forewarned YOU. Therefore, if people say to YOU, ‘Look! He is in the wilderness,’ do not go out; ‘Look! He is in the inner chambers,’ do not believe it. For just as the lightning comes out of eastern parts and shines over to western parts, so the presence of the Son of man will be.” (Matthew 24:23-27 New World Translation)
And so, with these words ringing in your ears, you gather your family and you flee to the mountains. You are saved.
Speaking for many, who, like myself, did listen to men telling us that Christ had come invisibly, as if in a hidden chamber or far off from prying eyes in the wilderness, I can attest to just how powerful the deception is, and how it preys on our desire to know things which God has chosen to keep hidden. It makes us easy targets for wolves in sheep’s clothing seeking to control and exploit others.
Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms: “Do not believe it!” This is not a suggestion from our Lord. This is a royal command and we must not disobey.
Then he removes all certainty about how we will know for sure that his presence has begun. Let’s read that again.
“For just as the lightning comes out of eastern parts and shines over to western parts, so the presence of the Son of man will be.” (Mt 24:23-27 NWT)
I can recall being at home in the evening, watching TV, when lightening flashed. Even with the blinds drawn, the light was so bright that it leaked in. I knew there was a storm outside, even before I heard the thunder.
Why did Jesus use that illustration? Consider this: He had just told us not to believe anyone—ANYONE—claiming they knew about Christ’s presence. Then he gives us the lightening illustration. If you’re standing outside—let’s say you’re in a park—when a bolt of lightening flashes across the sky and the fellow next to you gives you a nudge and say, “Hey, you know what? Lightening just flashed.” You’d probably look at him and think, “What an idiot. Does he think I’m blind?”
Jesus is telling us that you won’t need anyone to tell you about his presence because you will be able to see it for yourself. Lightening is completely non-denominational. It doesn’t appear only to believers, but not to unbelievers; to the scholars, but not to the unlettered; to the wise, but not to the foolish. Everyone sees it and knows it for what it is.
Now, while his warning was specifically directed to his Jewish disciples who would be living during the Roman siege, do you think there is a statute of limitations on it? Of course not. He said that his presence would be seen like lightning flashing across the sky. Have you seen it? Has anyone seen his presence? No? Then the warning still applies.
Remember what we learned about his presence in a previous video of this series. Jesus was present as the Messiah for 3 ½ years, but his “presence” had not begun. The word has a meaning in Greek which is missing in English. The word in Greek is parousia and in the context of Matthew 24, it refers to the entrance on the scene of a new and conquering power. Jesus came (Greek, eleusis) as the Messiah and was murdered. But when he returns, it will be his presence (Greek, parousia) that his enemies will witness; the entry of the conquering King.
The presence of Christ did not flash in the sky for all to see in 1914, nor was it seen in the first century. But besides that, we have the testimony of Scripture.
“And I do not wish you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, that ye may not sorrow, as also the rest who have not hope, for if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, so also God those asleep through Jesus he will bring with him, for this to you we say in the word of the Lord, that we who are living — who do remain over to the presence of the Lord — may not precede those asleep, because the Lord himself, in a shout, in the voice of a chief-messenger, and in the trump of God, shall come down from heaven, and the dead in Christ shall rise first, then we who are living, who are remaining over, together with them shall be caught away in clouds to meet the Lord in air, and so always with the Lord we shall be…” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 Young’s Literal Translation)
At the presence of Christ, the first resurrection occurs. Not only are the faithful resurrected, but at the same time, those alive will be transformed and taken up to meet the Lord. (I used the word “rapture” to describe this in a previous video, but one alert viewer drew my attention to the association this term has with the idea that everyone goes to heaven. So, to avoid any possible negative or misleading connotation, I will call this “the transformation”.)
Paul also refers to this when writing to the Corinthians:
“Look! I tell you a sacred secret: We will not all fall asleep in death, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the blink of an eye, during the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised up incorruptible, and we will be changed.” (1 Corinthians 15:51, 52 NWT)
Now, if the presence of Christ had occurred in 70 C.E., then there would have been no Christians left on earth to carry out the preaching that has brought us to the point where a third of the world claims to be Christian. Likewise, if the presence of Christ had occurred in 1914—as Witnesses claim—and if the anointed asleep in death had been resurrected in 1919—again, as Witnesses claim—then how it is that there are still anointed in the Organization today? They should have been all transformed in the twinkling of an eye in 1919.
Indeed, whether we’re talking 70 C.E. or 1914 or any other date in history, the sudden disappearance of a massive number of people would have left its mark on history. In the absence of such an event and in the absence of any report of a visible manifestation of Christ’s arrival as King—akin to lightening flashing across the sky—we can safely say that he has yet to return.
If doubt remains, consider this Scripture which speaks of what Christ will do at his presence:
“Now concerning the coming [parousia – “presence”] of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to Him, we ask you, brothers, not to be easily disconcerted or alarmed by any spirit or message or letter seeming to be from us, alleging that the Day of the Lord has already come. Let no one deceive you in any way, for it will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness—the son of destruction—is revealed. He will oppose and exalt himself above every so-called god or object of worship. So he will seat himself in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.” (2 Thessalonians 2:1-5 BSB)
Carrying on from verse 7:
“For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, but the one who now restrains it will continue until he is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will slay with the breath of His mouth and annihilate by the majesty of His arrival [parousia – “presence”].”
“The coming [parousia – “presence”] of the lawless one will be accompanied by the working of Satan, with every kind of power, sign, and false wonder, and with every wicked deception directed against those who are perishing, because they refused the love of the truth that would have saved them. For this reason, God will send them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie, in order that judgment will come upon all who have disbelieved the truth and delighted in wickedness.” (2 Thessalonians 2:7-12 BSB)
Can there be any doubt that this lawless one is still in action and doing very well, thank you very much. Or has false religion and apostate Christianity had its day? Not yet, it seems. The ministers disguised with fake righteousness are still very much in charge. Jesus has yet to judge, “slay and annihilate” this lawless one.
And so now we come to the problematic passage of Matthew 24:29-31. It reads:
“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 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. 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.” (Matthew 24:29-31 NWT)
Why do I call this a problematic passage?
It seems to be talking about the presence of Christ, doesn’t it? You have the sign of the Son of man appearing in heaven. Everyone on earth, believer and non-believer alike see it. Then the Christ himself appears.
I think you’ll agree that it sounds like a lightening-across-the-sky event. You have a trumpet sounding and then the chosen are gathered. We just read Paul’s words to the Thessalonians and Corinthians which parallel Jesus’ words here. So, what’s the problem? Jesus is describing events in our future, isn’t he?
The problem is that he says that all these things occur “immediately after the tribulation of those days…”.
One will naturally assume Jesus is referencing the tribulation that occurred in 66 C.E., which was cut short. If so, then he cannot be talking about his future presence, since we’ve already concluded that the transformation of living Christians has not yet taken place and that there has never been a manifestation of the kingly power of Jesus witnessed by all the people on earth which will bring about the destruction of the lawless one.
Indeed, ridiculers are still saying, “Where is this promised presence of his? Why, from the day our forefathers fell asleep in death, all things are continuing exactly as they were from creation’s beginning.” (2 Peter 3:4)
I believe that Matthew 24:29-31 is speaking of Jesus’ presence. I believe there is a reasonable explanation for the use of the phrase “immediately after that tribulation”. However, before getting into it, it would only be fair to consider the other side of the coin, the view held by Preterists. <insert link—YouTube Card—to part 6>
(Special thanks to a “Rational Voice” for this information.)
We’ll begin with verse 29:
“But immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun shall be darkened, and the moon not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken.” (Matthew 24:29 Darby Translation)
Similar metaphors were used by God through Isaiah when prophesying poetically against Babylon.
For the stars of heaven and their constellations
will not give their light.
The rising sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light.
Was Jesus applying the same metaphor to the destruction of Jerusalem? Perhaps, but let’s not arrive at any conclusions just yet, because that metaphor also fits with a future presence, so it is not conclusive to assume it can only apply to Jerusalem.
The next verse in Matthew reads:
“And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven; and then shall all the tribes of the land lament, and they shall see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” (Matthew 24:30 Darby)
There is another interesting parallel found in Isaiah 19:1 which reads:
“The burden of Egypt. Behold, Jehovah rideth upon a swift cloud, and cometh to Egypt; and the idols of Egypt are moved at his presence, and the heart of Egypt melteth in the midst of it.” (Darby)
So, the coming-in-the-clouds metaphor is seen as indicating the arrival of a conquering king and/or a time of judgment. That could fit symbolically with what happened in Jerusalem. This isn’t to say that they actually saw the “sign of the Son of man in heaven” and that they subsequently saw him literally “coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory”. Did the Jews in Jerusalem and Judea perceive their doom was not by the hand of Rome, but by the hand of God?
Some point to what Jesus told the religious leaders in his trial as support for a first century application of Matthew 24:30. He told them: “I say to all of you, from now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Matthew 26:64 BSB)
However, he didn’t say, “as some point in the future you will see the Son of Man…” but rather “from now on”. From that time forward, there would be signs indicating that Jesus was sitting at the right hand of Power, and would be coming on the clouds of heaven. Those signs came not in 70 C.E., but at his death when the curtain separating the Holy and Most Holy was torn in two by the hand of God, and darkness covered the land, and an earthquake shook the nation. The signs did not stop either. Soon there were many anointed ones walking about in the land, performing the healing signs that Jesus had performed and preaching the Christ resurrected.
While any one element of the prophecy can seem to have more than one application, when we view all the verses as a whole, does a different picture emerge?
For example, looking at the third verse, we read:
“And he shall send his angels with a great sound of trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from [the one] extremity of [the] heavens to [the other] extremity of them.” (Matthew 24:31 Darby)
It has been suggested that Psalm 98 explains the application of verse 31’s imagery. In that Psalm, we see Jehovah’s righteous judgments being accompanied by trumpet blasts, as well as rivers clapping their hands, and mountains singing in joy. It has also been suggested that since trumpet calls were used to gather the people of Israel together, the use of the trumpet in verse 31 alludes to the extracting of the chosen from Jerusalem following the Roman retreat.
Others suggest that the gathering of the chosen by the angels speaks to the ingathering of Christians from that time forward down to our day.
So, if you want to believe that Matthew 24:29-31 had its fulfillment at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem, or from that time forward, there does appear to be a path for you to follow.
However, I think that viewing the prophesy as a whole and within the context of the Christian Scriptures, instead of going back hundreds of years to pre-Christian times and writings, will lead us to a more satisfying and harmonious conclusion.
Let’s take another look at it.
The opening phrase says that all these events happen immediately after the tribulation of those days. Which days? You might think that nails it down to Jerusalem because Jesus speaks of a great tribulation affecting the city in verse 21. However, we are overlooking the fact he spoke of two tribulations. In verse 9 we read:
“Then people will hand you over to tribulation and will kill you, and you will be hated by all the nations on account of my name.” (Matthew 24:9)
This tribulation was not limited to the Jews, but extends to all the nations. It continues down to our day. In part 8 of this series, we saw that there is reason to consider the great tribulation of Revelation 7:14 as ongoing, and not just as a final event preceding Armageddon, as is commonly believed. Thus, if we consider that Jesus is speaking in Matthew 24:29 of the great tribulation upon all faithful servants of God down through time, then when that tribulation is completed, the events of Matthew 24:29 commence. That would put the fulfillment into our future. Such a position fits with the parallel account in Luke.
“Also, there will be signs in the sun and moon and stars, and on the earth anguish of nations not knowing the way out because of the roaring of the sea and its agitation. People will become faint out of fear and expectation of the things coming upon the inhabited earth, 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.” (Luke 21:25-27)
What happened from 66 to 70 C.E. did not bring anguish to the nations of the world, but only to Israel. Luke’s account doesn’t seem to jibe with a first century fulfillment.
In Matthew 24:3, we see that the disciples asked a three-part question. Up to this point in our consideration, we’ve learned how Jesus has answered two of those three parts:
Part 1 was: “When will all these things be?” That pertains to the destruction of the city and the temple which he spoke of on his last day preaching in the temple.
Part 2 was: “What will be the sign of the end of the age?”, or as the New World Translation puts it, “the conclusion of the system of things”. That was fulfilled when “the Kingdom of God was taken from them and given to a nation producing its fruits.” (Matthew 21:43) The ultimate proof that had happened was the total eradication of the Jewish nation. If they had been God’s chosen people, he would never have allowed the total destruction of the city and temple to have taken place. To this day, Jerusalem is a disputed city.
What is missing from our consideration is his answer to the third part of the question. “What will be the sign of your presence?”
If his words at Matthew 24:29-31 were fulfilled in the first century, then Jesus will have left us without an answer to that third element of the question. That would be uncharacteristic of him. At the very least, he would have told us, “I can’t answer that.” For instance, he once said, “I still have many things to say to you, but you are not able to bear them now.” (John 16:12) On another occasion, similar to their question on the Mount of Olives, they asked him directly, “Will you be restoring the Kingdom of Israel at this time?” He didn’t ignore the question nor leave them without an answer. Instead, he told them pointedly that the answer was something they were not allowed to know.
So, it seems unlikely that he would leave the question, “What will be the sign of your presence?”, unanswered. At the very least, he’d tell us that we are not allowed to know the answer.
On top of all this, there is the juxtaposition of his warning about not being taken in by false stories about his presence. From verses 15 to 22 he gives his disciples instructions on how to escape with their lives. Then in 23 to 28 he details how to avoid being mislead by stories about his presence. He concludes that by telling them his presence will be easily discernable to all like lightening in the sky. Then he describes events that would exactly fit that criteria. After all, Jesus coming with the clouds of heaven would be just as easy to discern as a bolt of lightening flashing from east to west and lighting up the sky.
Finally, Revelation 1:7 says, “Look! His is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him…” This matches with Matthew 24:30 which reads: “…they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds…”. Since Revelation was written years after the fall of Jerusalem, this also points to a future fulfillment.
So now, when we move to the final verse, we have:
“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 the heavens to the other.” (Matthew 24:31 BSB)
“And then he will send out the angels and will gather his chosen ones together from the four winds, from earth’s extremity to heaven’s extremity.” (Mark 13:27 NWT)
It is hard to see how “from earth’s extremity to heaven’s extremity” could fit with the highly localized exodus that occurred in Jerusalem in 66 C.E.
Look now at the communality between those verses and these, which follow:
“Look! I tell YOU a sacred secret: We shall not all fall asleep [in death], but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, during the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised up incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” (1 Corinthians 15:51, 52 NWT)
“…the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a commanding call, with an archangel’s voice and with God’s trumpet, and those who are dead in union with Christ will rise first. Afterward we the living who are surviving will, together with them, be caught away in clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and thus we shall always be with [the] Lord.” (1 Thessalonians 4:16, 17)
All these verses include a trumpet sounding and all speak of the gathering of the chosen ones in the resurrection or the transformation, which occurs at the presence of the Lord.
Next, in verses 32 to 35 of Matthew, Jesus gives his disciples assurances that the foretold destruction of Jerusalem will come within a limited time frame and will be foreseeable. Then in verses 36 to 44 he tells them the opposite concerning his presence. It will be unforeseeable and there is no specified time frame for its fulfillment. When he speaks at verse 40 of two men working and one will be taken and the other left, and then again at verse 41 of two women working and one being taken and the other left, he could hardly be talking about the escape from Jerusalem. Those Christians weren’t taken suddenly, but left the city of their own accord, and anyone who wanted could have left with them. However, the idea of one being taken while his companion is left fits with the concept of people being suddenly transformed, in the twinkling of an eye, into something new.
In summary, I think that when Jesus says “immediately after the tribulation of those days”, he’s speaking of the great tribulation that you and I are enduring even now. That tribulation will end when the events related to the presence of Christ come to pass.
I believe that Matthew 24:29-31 is speaking about the presence of Christ, not the destruction of Jerusalem.
However, you may disagree with me and that’s okay. This is one of those Bible passages where we cannot be absolutely certain about its application. Does it really matter? If you think one way and I think another, will our salvation be blocked? You see, unlike the instructions Jesus gave his Jewish disciples about fleeing the city, our salvation depends not on taking a course of action at a particular time based on a particular sign, but rather, on our ongoing obedience every day of our lives. Then, when the Lord appears like a thief in the night, he will take care of rescuing us. When the time comes, the Lord will take us.