As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” (Matthew 24:3)
Matthew 24 is a chapter which tends to be quoted whenever there is a major catastrophe somewhere on the globe. If the news reports a major earthquake or tsunami which has killed thousands, or if we hear of genocide or war taking place somewhere resulting in multitudes of deaths, well-meaning religious folks will often quote Jesus’ statement in Matthew 24:6-7 as a sign to look for showing the end of the world is near: “And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars…For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places.” They will then apply this passage to whatever terrible catastrophe is on the news and say the end is nigh.
A careful examination of Matthew 24 shows that Jesus was not giving signs announcing His impending return, however. As Christ and his disciples left the temple one day, the disciples pointed out the beautiful buildings to him. He responded by prophesying that the temple would be completely destroyed (vs. 1-2). Astonished, the disciples later asked him two questions in verse 3. First, when would the temple be destroyed? Second, what would be the sign of Christ’s coming and the end of the “age” (aion in Greek, also meaning world or universe)?
The rest of chapter 24 and all of chapter 25 records Jesus’ answers to their questions. First, He answers the question about when the temple would be destroyed. He gave them signs that that terrible event is close such as false prophets, persecution, and apostasy…and also wars, famines, pestilences and earthquakes (vs. 4-13). Notice that the passage about “wars and rumors of wars,” “nation ris(ing) against nation,” and “famines, pestilences, and earthquakes” often cited as proof that the world is about to end was actually given as a sign that the Jerusalem temple was about to destroyed, an event which took place long ago in the year 70 A.D. when Rome besieged Jerusalem.
He then foretold that the gospel would be preached everywhere before the temple was destroyed (v. 14), something which Paul wrote had taken place a few years before Rome destroyed Jerusalem (Colossians 1:5-6, 23). He then urged His followers to run immediately without stopping to pack when they saw “the abomination of desolation” prophesied by Daniel (vs. 15-22; cf. Daniel 9:27), a prophesy about Rome besieging Jerusalem as Luke’s account of this conversation shows (Luke 21:20).
After warning them not to listen to anyone saying that He had returned in those days (vs. 23-28), He then spoke of “the sun (being) darkened…the moon (not giving) its light…the stars (falling) from heaven,” and “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” (vs. 29-31). Admittedly, this sounds like a description of the end of the world. However, it’s actually figurative language used by prophets in the Old Testament to describe God punishing wicked nations by allowing their enemies to conquer them (see Isaiah 13:10ff; 19:1ff; 34:4ff; Ezekiel 30:18ff; 32:7ff). His next statement that all of what He had just said would take place in that current generation shows very clearly that He had Rome’s destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. in mind (vs. 32-34).
Starting in verse 35, He then answered His disciples’ second question about the sign of His coming and the end of the world. He promised that “heaven and earth will pass away,” but note that He specifically warned that no one would know when that day would be (vs. 35-39). There would be no warnings signs as there was for the temple’s destruction, which is why He warned Christians to always be prepared (vs. 40-51; 25:1-30). The prepared (faithful Christians) will “be taken,” rising in the air to meet the Lord (vs. 40-47; cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). The unprepared (the lost) will be left behind as this world and universe burns up (vs. 40-41; cf. 2 Peter 3:10-13). Then all will be judged, with the righteous being ushered into eternal life while the condemned being cast into hell (25:31-46; cf. Revelation 20:11-15).
Are you ready for the day Jesus returns?