by Neil Short
My habit is to post my bibliography at the end of any paper; but in this case I am going to post it early. I consulted a number of scholars in the course of formulating my own opinions on this chapter in Matthew. As I may not be able to give credit in every case with a footnote I want to recognize these guys up front for helping me to clarify my views.
Black, Allen. The College Press NIV Commentary: Mark. Joplin: College Press, 1995.
France, Dick. Daily Bible Commentary: Mark. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 2007.
Hagner, Donald A. Word Biblical Commentary: Matthew 14-28. Dallas: Word Books, 1995.
Proctor, John. Daily Bible Commentary: Matthew. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 2007.
Richards, Lawrence O. Devotional Commentary. Colorado Springs: Victor, 2002.
Viviano, Benedict T. "The Gospel According to Matthew." The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Ed. Raymond E. Brown, et al. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1990. 630-674.
Wintermute, O. S., translator. "The Apocalypse of Zephaniah." The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: Apocalyptic Literature & Testaments. Ed. James H. Charlesworth. New York: Doubleday, 1983. 508-515.
The material presented in Matthew 24 comes in large part from the Marcan information found in Mark 13. This same Marcan information can be found in a somewhat briefer and perhaps clearer presentation in Luke 21:5-36. The non-Marcan information of Matthew 24 is also found in Luke 17:20-37 and can be said to come from the source common to Matthew and Luke, coined as the Q source.
Each of these evangelists presented his information for the edification of a target set of readers. Although their agendas may differ I find that cross referencing the writers helps to clarify the intent of this prophecy.
Here is an outline of how I believe we should understand the prophetic discourse of Matthew 24:
4-13: A lecture concluding that it is a mistake to view the fall of Jerusalem (or any other disaster) as a sign of the coming of the Son of Man. This section takes to task the premise of the question in vs 3 - that the fall of Jerusalem is connected to the Second Coming.
14-29: Answers to the question of when will be the time the Temple is torn down and what will be the sign.
30-31: Prophesies the growth of the church which will follow the destruction of Jerusalem.
32-34: Fig tree lesson. There will be a sign of the coming destruction of Jerusalem.
36-44: There will not be a sign of the coming of the Son of Man! At that time, the elect will become evident to all.
Disaster Does Not Spell The End (24:4-13)
The prophecies of chapter 24 follow logically from the woes of chapter 23 - especially the last woe (23:29-36) which accuses the scribes and Pharisees of the same guilt of their fathers for murdering the righteous prophets of old. As they are about to murder God's messiah and martyr even more prophets that will come to them they will have a hard time avoiding the sentence of Gehenna (i.e., Hell. See 5:22).
The disciples must have been shocked by the news in 24:2 that the Temple would be razed. They connected the destruction of the Temple with the coming of Jesus.
By this time it was evident that Jesus, after triumphantly entering Jerusalem in 21:6-11, was not going to seize kingly power in the city. We suspect they may have expected another plan on Jesus' part. If the Temple was going to be destroyed it must be connected with Jesus' plan to become king, they might have reasoned. It must be connected with the end of the present age (of the Jews? of the Roman oppression?) and the beginning of the next age of the Messiah. They asked him what would be the sign of this three-fold fulfillment.
Jesus begins his answer by rejecting the premise that the destruction of the Temple would herald the coming of the Son of Man. The destruction of Jerusalem would be just one disaster in a long history of disasters - none of which would herald Jesus' coming. Do not connect this disaster nor any other disaster with the coming of the Messiah. In fact, anyone claiming to be the Messiah is lying. The disciples have other concerns (24:9). Mark (13:11) and Luke (21:14-15) include information at this point that their testimonies before hostile councils would be miraculously given to them.
Matthew (24:14) and Mark (13:10) indicates that the duty of the disciples and of those who don't fall away (24:10) to preach the good news of the kingdom to all nations. Matthew concludes the prophecy with, "and then the end will come." Mark does not. Do not make the mistake to conclude that preaching the Gospel to the nations will speed up the coming of the Lord; nor will our refusal to preach the Gospel prevent the event. There is an appointed day and hour (24:36).
Time to Run (24:15-25)
After Jesus resolved the confusion of connecting the Temple destruction with the end of history he goes on to answer the part of the question dealing with the sign of the Temple destruction itself. Jesus connects a prophecy from the book of Daniel (Daniel 9:27; 11:31; 12:11) with evidence that the fall of the city is near. One possibility for the fulfillment of this prophecy as it connects with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. is an incident in which a group of Zealots (revolutionaries against Rome) holed up in the Temple in 67-68 A.D. Whatever the event, Luke 21:20 is more explicit by describing the city being surrounded by armies. For Christians in Jerusalem, it is no time to take up arms with the rest of the Jews. It is a time to get out of town. Do not believe messianic leaders. The city will fall and it will be bloody.
It's worth mentioning here that Eusebius (c. 265-c. 340) reports that many Christians fled to Pella and Perea near the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. (Book 3, 5:3).
In 24:26-28 Jesus summarizes the point that this Jerusalem disaster is not a sign of the coming of the Messiah. He adds that He will not drift into our number like He did with his birth. There will be no chance that He will come and may be missed by some who are looking forward to the return. No. His appearance will be as conspicuous as lightning flashing across the sky. It will happen as sure as vultures gather at a corpse.
Luke 17:37 gives the same analogy of the birds gathering over a dead body and it applies to the same reality. As sure as the birds gather, the Son of Man will appear and nobody will miss it.
As you can see from my outline above, I included 24:29 with Jesus' description of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The verse speaks of cosmic occurrences that accompany those days associated with the destruction.
Stars are associated with powers. In apocalyptic language they sometimes refer to falling angels; but usually they are associated with earthly kings which are often seen as embodied by (or reflected in) stars. This view is definitely the case in Matthew. Recall that the Magi saw evidence of the Lord's birth in the stars (Matthew 2:1-2). When a king is assassinated his star falls (cf, Isaiah 34:1-38).
Son of Man Appears in Heaven (24:30-31)
I see a surge in church growth in verses 30-31. I see the expansion of the kingdom over which the Lord is the king. I see the angels in verse 31 as "messengers" (an alternate translation of the Greek word for "angels") who take the message of the Gospel to the nations. I will defend this view but I must admit that it is difficult to maintain.
The language of these verses in our ears reminds us of descriptions elsewhere in the New Testament of the Second Coming of the Lord (2 Thessalonians 1:7, Matthew 13:37-43; 25:31). Another way to look at these verses, therefore, is to see it as a description of the Second Coming.
In support of a view towards church growth I suggest the following:
The next section deals again with with the sign of the destruction of the city of Jerusalem. If the surge in church growth is described then the speech flows more smoothly as opposed to its jumping around from 70 A.D. to the Second Coming and back to 70 A.D.
The church growth view is consistent with 24:14 and works well as a chiasmic (symmetric) formula.
Although Luke says approximately the same thing in Luke 21:27-28 and connects the event with "your redemption," he is more explicit with his version of Matthew 24:14 in Luke 21:24 that he means preaching to the nations and the growth of the Gentile church (see also Mark 13:10).
The difficulty with the "church growth" view above is that the language fits more easily into a description of the Second Coming - but obviously with some new problems, notably,
The discourse jumps around from A.D. 70 to the Second Coming and back, or
We conclude the Lord's Second coming coincided with the A.D. 70 event; but then,
The Lord's coming was NOT as conspicuous as lightning (contra 24:27), and
It is in fact associated with the fall of Jerusalem (contra 4-13, 36-44).
The Fig Tree (24:32-35)
In Matthew, a fig tree - as a lesson or in a parable - symbolizes Jerusalem (21:18-21, 43; 3:10; 7:19. See also Mark 11:11-21; Luke 13:6-7). The point is simple. There will be signs that the end of the city is near. It will happen within a generation.
You Cannot Predict the Second Coming of the Lord (24:36-44)
Coming back to the question of "what will be the sign of your coming?" Jesus explicitly explains that the coming of the Lord cannot be predicted. Christians should therefore live like they expect it as something imminent, which of course it is for all of us. Knowing that the Lord will come and nobody knows when, don't get caught unprepared. People will be going about their daily business but in that day it will become manifest the differences between believers and unbelievers. Both work in the field but one is a believer and one is an unbeliever. Both grind meal but one is ready for the Lord and the other is not. Be as ready for the Lord as is the owner of a house who expects the thief to come.
For the idiom of two people walking, grinding meal and in a bed (Luke 17:34), see The Apocalypse of Zephaniah 2:1-4.
The parable in Matthew 24:45-51 charges Christians to be ready. Mark's shorter record of the parable (Mark 13:32-37) charges Christians to not be caught (spiritually) sleeping! Matthew chapter 25 continues that theme.