One of the most misunderstood passages in the Bible is Matthew 24, sometimes known as the Olivet discourse. I call it Jesus' Big Prophecy (there are parallel accounts in Mark 13 and Luke 21). Most people assume that this passage gives signs of the second coming of Jesus. This is not true. Verses 1-35 are actually a warning of the destruction of Jerusalem. Jesus was giving a strong warning to the Jews of what would happen to them, if they rejected him. Only at the end of the prophecy is his Second Coming described, and no signs are given.

Jesus' Big Prophecy describes a dramatic change in the purposes of God. Israel is no longer God's chosen instrument for working in the world. His salvation belongs to all the world. God will now work through the New Israel, which is chosen out of all the nations of the earth. He will no longer dwell in a temple in Jerusalem, but will dwell by the Spirit in the church wherever it is. The kingdom of Israel will end, but the Kingdom of God will begin. His kingdom is no longer confined to Israel, but will extend out into all the world.

This was a hard message for the disciples to receive, so he used apocalyptic language from the Old Testament to drive his point home. He wanted them to understand that the old order was passing away, and a new age was about to begin. We sometimes miss his message, because we do not understand this dramatic way of thinking. We need to go back to the Old Testament to learn the meaning of the language and images that Jesus used in this prophecy.


To understand Matthew 24, we must consider the context in which Jesus was speaking. Matthew records a long confrontation between Jesus and the leaders of the Jewish nation. It began in the time of John the Baptist. When the Pharisees and Sadducees came out to him, he challenged them to repent.

You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire (Matt 3:7-12).

This was the first ominous warning to the Jewish nation. History shows that they did not repent and Matthew 24 describes how the axe would fall.

Early in his ministry, Jesus gave a similar warning. After seeing the faith of the Gentile Centurion he said that many of the Gentiles would take a place in the Kingdom of Heaven, but many of the Jews, to whom the Kingdom really belonged, would be thrown out into the place of darkness, and weeping, and gnashing of teeth (Matt 8:11,12).

Matthew 12 records an incident in which some Jews accused Jesus of using the power of Satan to cast out demons. From that time on, Jesus spoke in parables, so that they would not be able to understand what he was saying (Matt 13:13). The Jewish nation seemed to be set on a collision course with the purposes of God. This confrontation came to a head after the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem (Matt 21). The Jewish leaders again questioned Jesus' authority. Jesus responded with the parables of the Wicked Tenants and the Wedding Banquet, which warn that those who refuse to acknowledge him will find themselves shut out of the Kingdom.

This debate reached a climax in Matthew 22. The Jewish leaders had already begun to plot ways in which to kill Jesus (Matt 12:14), so they tried to trap him with trick questions about paying taxes to Caesar, the resurrection, and the commandments. Jesus' answers were so confounding that no one dared to ask any more questions.

Jesus Warning

Jesus responded by publicly denouncing the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law. Matthew 23 records his terrible accusation: of pride, false teaching, lack of mercy and faith, false judgment, dishonesty, greed and self-indulgence. After denouncing the Jewish leaders in a series of seven woes, Jesus then announced:

Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers (Matt 23:32).

This is a picture of a cup that is nearly full, and is being filled up to overflowing by the current generation of Jews.

The nation has been rebelling against God and grieving him for many centuries. Now with the rejection of his son, they would fill up the cup of troubles for their nation. The law had warned that a nation that refused to be corrected would be punished for its sins, seven times over (Lev 26:23,24). This is exactly what would happen.

Jesus pronounced a terrible sentence on the Jewish nation.

Upon you will come all the righteous blood, that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berakiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. I tell you the truth, all these things will come upon this generation (Matt 23:35-36).

The consequences of the deaths of all the prophets would come upon this generation. They would pay the price with their blood.

Jesus then wept for Jerusalem and said.

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.' (Matt 23:37-39).

Jesus had longed to draw the people of Jerusalem to himself, but he knew they would reject him. He declared that God's immediate purposes for the Jews were finished. Their house would be left desolate. The temple, which had been the dwelling place of God, had become a place of desolation. It was now deserted by God, so its destruction was inevitable. After pronouncing this solemn sentence, Jesus left the temple, never to return.

Temple Destroyed

The disciples expected the Messiah to rule the world from the temple. They expected it to be a centre of worship for all people on the earth (Acts 1:6). They were totally shocked by Jesus' words. They could not accept the idea that God would desert the temple, so they pointed out the wonder of its buildings. But Jesus made his meaning clear when he said,

Do you see all these things. I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down (Matt 24:2).

The temple would be totally destroyed. This is the context in which Jesus made his prophetic statement on the Mount of Olives. The leaders of the nation had repeatedly questioned and rejected his authority. Jesus declared that the consequence of this rebellion, would be the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. All these things would come upon the current generation.

Two Questions

Jesus' Big Prophecy was prompted by the disciple's questions as they sat with Jesus on the Mount of Olives. They came to him with two questions:

  1. When will these things be (the destruction of Jerusalem)?

  2. What will be the sign of your coming (parousia), and the end of the age?

The disciples believed they were asking one question, because they had assumed that these events would happen together. They could not imagine a world without the Temple of Jerusalem, so they assumed that the destruction of the Temple must mean the end of the world. Jesus had taught them about the day of judgment that would follow his coming at the end of the age. When they heard him speak of the destruction of Jerusalem, they just assumed that it would also come at the same time. They wanted to know both the sign and the time of these events.

Whatever the confusion of the disciples, Jesus is very clear that the destruction of Jerusalem is different from the second coming and the end of the age. He treats their question in two parts. Firstly, he gives the signs and timing of the destruction of Jerusalem (question 1). Then he speaks of the sign and the time of the second coming (question 2). Matthew 24 has two parts. Verses 4-35 deal with the destruction of Jerusalem. Verses 36-51 deal with the second coming and the end of the age.

All These Things

The key to understanding the first part is the phrase "all these things" (panta tauta). Jesus ends his answer to the first question by saying:

I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away (Matt 24:34-35).

When Jesus says that "all these things" must take place while the current generation is alive, he is referring back to his statement about the temple and the first question.

Do you see all these things? Not one stone here will be left on another (Matt 24:2).

Tell us, when will these things be? (Matt 24:3).

When challenging Jewish leaders, he had used the same phrase.

Upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. I tell you the truth, all these things will come upon this generation (Matt 23:35-36).

The phrase "all these things" is shorthand for the disasters that would make the house of the Jews desolate. When Jesus says that "all these things" shall happen before the generation listening has passed away, he is also referring to the collapse of the nation of Israel. The only catastrophe that took place within the appropriate timespan was the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. This is clearly the event to which Jesus was referring. Matthew 24:4-35 is a description, and a warning of the destruction of Jerusalem. Jesus gives emphasis to his sombre prophecy by saying that heaven and earth will pass away, but his words will never pass away.

A shortened version of this phrase (panta) is used in Matt 24:8.

All these are the beginning of birth pains.

The destruction of Jerusalem marks the beginning of a new season in history. The events Jesus described are the birth pangs of this new age.

Jesus' reference to the current generation rules out any double fulfilment. Some interpreters make the confusing claim that Jesus prophecy was partially fulfilled in AD 70, but will be fully fulfilled before the second coming. Jesus statement that all these things will be fulfilled during the lifespan of his hearers makes this impossible.

To avoid the clear meaning of Jesus' statement, some people place another meaning on the word "generation". They translate the word as "race" or "nation", making Jesus say that the nation of Israel will not pass away before the fulfilment of these things. Not only does this make Jesus' statement rather vague, but it also has no basis in scripture. There is no other place in the gospel where the word has this meaning. Matthew always uses it to refer to people living in the present. Jesus is referring to the people who were present (see also Matt 16:28).


In Matthew 24:36, Jesus goes on to answer the second part of the disciple's question. He gives a description of the second coming and the end of the age. He makes this clear by dropping the expression "these things" and taking up the phrase "that day". This phrase would have been familiar to the disciples. Jesus had used it many times to describe the last judgment (Matt 7:22; 11:22). They would understand that he is now talking about the day of judgment at the end of the age (second coming).

But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only (Matt 24:36).

Jesus himself does not know the day or the hour. He warns his followers to be prepared, so they will be ready whenever he comes.


This is not the usual interpretation of Matthew 24. Most people interpret the entire chapter as a description of the events leading up to the second coming. In view of this, some further arguments in favour of dividing it into two parts will be given.

  1. The destruction of Jerusalem is an important event. We would expect Jesus to make some comments on it. The only lengthy description and warning is found in Matthew 24:4-35. If this passage only refers to the second coming, Jesus has let a vital event in the history of Israel pass without comment. It would also mean that Jesus had avoided the disciple's question, which would be odd.

  2. In the equivalent account in Luke's Gospel, only the first part of the disciple's question is recorded.

    When will these things happen? And what will be the sign they are about to take place (Luke 21:7).

    Luke 21 only gives the first part of Jesus answer (the equivalent of Matt 24:4-35). Luke recognises that Jesus' comments about the last day are part of a separate topic and records them separately in a different chapter (Luke 17:20-37). Here we see the Holy Spirit guiding a writer to divide the prophetic declaration in half, because it covers different topics.

  3. The events in the first part of Matthew 24:4-35 are limited to the locality of Palestine. This is indicated by the reference to Sabbath travel (Matt 24:20). This would only be a hardship in Palestine. Likewise, the command not to go down off their houses was only relevant in Palestine, where houses were all joined together allowing people to walk along the rooftops. In contrast, the scene in the second part of the passage is universal in application.

  4. The first section gives an impression of very tumultuous times. There are wars, famines, earthquakes and persecutions. The second section describes a more normal situation; people are eating and drinking, getting married and working in normal employment. This only makes sense if the two sections refer to different times.

  5. Jesus gives a specific sign for the events described in the first part of the chapter; the abomination of desolation (Matt 24:15). In the second part, Jesus absolutely refuses to give any signs. He tells three parables which all teach that there will be no warning signs prior to his coming. This would be incoherent if he were speaking about the same events.

  6. In the first section, Jesus tells his followers to flee from Jerusalem into the mountains. This would be pointless behaviour at the second coming, as his followers will simply be taken (Matt 24:40-41). However, it would be good advice if Jerusalem were about to be besieged by a foreign army, which is what Jesus was really describing.

  7. There is a sense of urgency in the first part of the chapter. Yet the parables in the second part suggest that there will be considerable delay before Jesus returns.

  8. In the first few verses of Matthew 24, Jesus speaks about the Jerusalem Temple. It can have no relevance to the second coming as it was destroyed in AD 70, so these verses cannot apply to the second coming. Some commentators get around this by saying that the temple will be rebuilt, but this does not help as Jesus is specifically talking about the temple that the disciples were looking at. Actually, there is no place in the New Testament that says that the temple will be rebuilt. His followers are the temple of the Holy Spirit.

The first part of Jesus' Big Prophecy describes the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. It is his answer to the first question that the disciples asked and has no connection with the second coming.

Earthquakes Wars and Famines

Many Christians believe that earthquakes, wars and famines are a sign that the second coming is close. The belief is incorrectly based on Matthew 24:4-7. In this passage, Jesus was warning his disciples about the destruction of Jerusalem. The disciples had asked for a sign that would indicate that the fall of Jerusalem was near. Before giving the specific sign, Jesus gave some misleading signs. He warned his listeners not to be deceived by them.

Watch out that no one deceives you (Matt 24:4).

The misleading signs were events that would take place before the destruction of Jerusalem, but they were not immediate signs of that destruction. They are the "birth pangs" rather than "death throes". Events of this kind will also occur throughout history.

1. False Messiahs

For many will come in my name, claiming, "I am the Christ" (Matt 24:5).

Many false messiahs appeared during the years following Jesus ministry and many Jews were deceived. The Jews were looking for a political leader who would overthrow the Romans, so they were vulnerable to leaders promising deliverance. The centurion who arrested Paul in Jerusalem spoke of an Egyptian who started a revolt and led 4000 terrorists out into the desert (Acts 21:38; see also Acts 5:36-37; Acts 8:9-10).

False Messiahs became more common, as the destruction of Jerusalem got closer. Jesus had warned that false messiahs would come giving false hope to the people. They would even do signs and wonders that would deceive some people. His warning was proved correct when a great number of false messiahs arose in Jerusalem. Some were in the pay of Rome. One false prophet told the people that if they hid in the temple, they would be saved. Those who listened were killed when the temple was destroyed.

There were a number of strange signs. For half an hour, a bright light covered the temple. For a while, a star resembling a sword hung over the city. These signs were probably performed by false prophets using demonic power. If the Jews had listened to Jesus' warning, they would not have been deceived.

2. Wars.

You will hear of wars and rumours of wars.... nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom (Matt 24:6, 7).

Rome had enjoyed a long period of peace, but not long after the ascension of Jesus, war and strife became widespread in the empire. Four Roman emperors died violently in the space of eighteen months. A war between the Syrians and the Jews led to the death of 20,000 Jews.

3. Famines

There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains (Matt 24:7,8).

Acts 11:28 records a famine that occurred during the reign of the Emperor Claudius. This famine spread to many parts of the empire and was followed by a pestilence in which thousands of people died.

4. Earthquakes

Earthquakes are recorded in a variety of places prior to AD 70. The city of Pompeii was severely damaged by an earthquake in AD 63. Other earthquakes occurred in Crete, Smyrna Miletus, Laodicea, Colossae, Rome and Judea.

5. Persecution and betrayal

Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other (Matt 24:9,10)

This persecution began when the gospel was first preached in Jerusalem at Pentecost. Peter and John were put into prison. Later James was put to death. Paul was beaten and imprisoned many times for his faith. Persecution was a normal experience for the early Christians (Acts 9:1). During these times of persecution, many denied their faith and betrayed their brethren.

Unreliable Signs

All these misleading signs took place as Jesus said they would. The events could have easily misled the Christians into thinking that the destruction of Jerusalem was close. Jesus did not want Jerusalem to be left without a gospel witness during this tumultuous time. The was explaining that his followers could stay in Jerusalem and preach the gospel despite the occurrence of these events. They could prepare, but they should not flee until the immediate sign occurred.

Many Christians believe that these are signs of the second coming of Christ. They spend a lot of time looking for earthquakes, wars and famines. This is foolish for two reasons. Firstly, Jesus was not talking about the second coming. Secondly, he warned that wars, famines and earthquakes were misleading signs. He specifically told Christians not to be deceived when they hear about them.

Watch out that no one deceives you (Matt 24:4).

The disciples had asked for a sign that would indicate that the fall of Jerusalem was near. Before giving the specific signs of the Destruction of Jerusalem, Jesus gave some unreliable signs and warned his listeners not to be deceived by them. Wars famines and earthquake are unreliable signs, so his followers should ignore them.

Jesus explained why these signs are unreliable. The reason is simple.

See to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen (Matt 24:6).

The reasons they are not to be alarmed is that these types of things are "bound to happen". Wars, famines and earthquakes have been common throughout human history. Because they happen so frequently, they cannot be meaningful signs of anything. Those who see these things as signs of the second coming will be continually getting false alarms.

There was a good reason why wars, famines and earthquakes occurred during the last days of the temple system.

All these are the beginning of sorrows (Matt 12:6).

When a people or nation loses the blessing of God, troubles and sorrows always follow. The people of Israel had rejected their messiah, so they lost the protection of God. Sorrows were inevitable. These wars, earthquakes and famines were just the beginning of the sorrows that they would experience over the next few thousand years. This is true in all situations. When nations reject God, troubles will follow.

During the last two thousand years, rejection of God has been common, so naturally wars, famines and earthquakes have been common. Things that happen frequently cannot be a sign of the second coming. They are a sign that a culture has lost God's blessing. Those who read more than that into them will be deceived.

Jesus explicitly stated explicitly that wars famines and earthquakes are not real signs. Unfortunately, despite Jesus' warning, many Christians are still being deceived by these very things. The widespread belief that wars, famines and earthquake are a sign of the second coming is a bizarre distortion of Jesus' words.

Gospel to the Nations

Having spoken of preliminary events, Jesus goes on to give two true signs of the fall of Jerusalem. This first seems to be a condition for its fulfilment.

And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to the nations and then the end will come (Matthew 24:14).

The preaching of the gospel throughout the world was a condition that had to be fulfilled before the destruction of Jerusalem could come. God wanted the nations to understand the reasons for this disaster (cf Exodus 32:12, Deut 2:25). They needed this context to understand the significance of the event.

Many Christians are confused about the word "end" in this verse. The Greek word translated as end is "telos", which means end , last part, close or conclusion. It is different from the word "sunteleia", which is used in the expression "end of the age" in Matthew 24:3. "Sunteleia" is often translated as "end", but it really means consummation. The disciples were asking about the consummation of the age so it was the appropriate word. In Matthew 24:14, Jesus is not speaking about the consummation of the age, so he just uses the word "telos". He was warning of the end of the Jewish nation in its current form, so this word was appropriate.

Many Christians find it hard to believe that gospel had been preached to the whole world by A.D.70 Yet this is exactly what the Bible teaches. On the day of Pentecost, there were devout men in Jerusalem "from every nation under heaven" (Acts 2:5). They would have taken the gospel back to their own lands. In Romans 1:8, Paul gives thanks the Christian faith is spoken of "all over the world". Colossians 1:6 says that "all over the world the gospel is producing fruit". The most specific fulfilment is later in the same chapter.

This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every nation under heaven (Col 1:23).

This is very clear. The gospel had been proclaimed in every nation under even when Paul was writing to the Colossians.

Preaching the gospel is not the same as fulfilling the Great Commission. It specified a more difficult task: making disciples of all nations. That commission is still not complete. Jesus prophetic sign only required the gospel to be proclaimed as a "testimony" and a witness. The Bible states that this had happened by the time that Jerusalem was destroyed.

The Abomination of Desolation

Jesus gave a very specific sign that the destruction of Jerusalem was close. When the Christians who had stayed in Jerusalem to preach the gospel saw this sign, they should get out immediately.

So when you see standing in the holy place "the abomination that causes desolation," spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains (Matt 24 15,16).

The meaning of the expression is made clear by Luke in his account of Jesus' words. He records Jesus' explanation in his own words:

When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city (Luke 21:20,21).

The "abomination that causes desolation" is not some future antichrist, but quite simply the Holy City being made desolate by a pagan army. In the Bible, an abomination is an idolatrous practice. The Roman army is called an abomination because its ensigns portrayed images of the emperor.

When they saw this sign, the Christians were to flee to the mountains. Tremendous urgency was attached to this warning.

Let no one on the roof of his house go down to take anything out of his house. Let no one in the field go back to get his cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers. Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath (Matt 24:17-20).

There would be no time to wait around or to gather possessions together. The flight would have to be instantaneous to beat the siege.

Jesus' warning saved the lives of many of his followers. Although a million Jews lost their lives in the siege of Jerusalem, most Christians heeded Jesus' warning and fled at the first signs of the siege.

Jesus' words are also a warning not to confuse the siege of Jerusalem with the events described in Zechariah 14. That passage describes a siege in which the Lord will miraculously rescue his people. Many Jews expected this to happen in AD 70, but were disappointed. Jesus had told them what to expect, so the disciples did not hang around waiting for a dramatic rescue in AD 70. They knew in advance that Jerusalem would be destroyed.

Many Christians believe that a future Antichrist will set up an altar to himself in the Jerusalem temple. This event is often called the "abomination of desolation". The expression "abomination that causes desolation" comes from Daniel 9:27. Some Bible teachers teach incorrectly that Daniel's prophecy refers to the end of the world, but this is not correct. The passage describes the effects of the cross and the destruction of Jerusalem (see Seventy Weeks). The abomination of desolation has already occurred. Christians should not be looking forward to it happening in the future.

Terrible Tribulation

Jesus warned that the Destruction of Jerusalem would be a terrible time.

How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. For then there will be great distress, unequalled from the beginning of the world until now-and never to be equalled again (Matt 24:19-21).

These words were fulfilled in AD 70. The siege and destruction of Jerusalem was a terrible experience. It was made worse by taking place at the Passover, when thousands of Jews were visiting Jerusalem. Over a million Jews died and a further two million were sold as slaves.

The worst horrors took place in the city prior to its final collapse. Fear and hunger drove the people to terrible violence and even cannibalism. A number of factions fought with each other to gain control of the city. Each group robbed, tortured and killed those who would not join it. During these struggles, many stores of food were destroyed. Even the temple was used as a battleground and many worshippers were killed in its courts. People who managed to keep a little food were often beaten and robbed. Mothers ate their own children and old people were left to die

God had warned that this would happen.

Because of the suffering that your enemy will inflict on you during the siege, you will eat the fruit of the womb, the flesh of the sons and daughters the LORD your God has given you. Even the most gentle and sensitive man among you will have no compassion on his own brother or the wife he loves or his surviving children (Deut 28:53-54).

Those who tried to escape were tortured by the Romans and crucified. This happened so often that there was a shortage of timber for crosses.

When the Romans finally broke in, they inflicted terrible destruction. They shattered the walls and destroyed the buildings. Even the temple was smashed and burned. This was truly a terrible tribulation for the Jews. Jesus was right when he said that such a terrible time had never occurred before.

This prophecy has a note of encouragement for us. It means that the worst tribulation that the world will ever experience is already behind us. We will face some tough stuff, but it will not be as bad as what happened to Jerusalem.

Jesus also included hope for the Jewish people.

If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened (Matt 24:22).

The Jewish nation would not be totally destroyed. For the sake of those who had been chosen for salvation, this terrible tribulation would be cut short. This was an act of mercy, for if it were not cut short, the entire nation would have perished. God chose to stop that from happening, so the Jewish people survived.

The Sun and Moon falling from the Sky

Jesus used very strong and vivid language based on the apocalyptic language of the Old Testament to describe the passing of the Jewish nation (Matt 24:29-31). Many Christians expect these passages to be fulfilled literally, so they assume that Jesus is speaking about the end of the world. Jesus' words were dramatic, but failure to understand the nature of apocalyptic language he used has led many people to see them as a description of the second coming. Jesus is actually describing the consequences of the fall of Jerusalem.

Immediately after the distress of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken (Matt 24:29).

The time frame of these verses is made very clear: "immediately after the tribulation of those days". They apply to that part of the great tribulation that takes immediately place after the Roman Armies surround Jerusalem.

Jesus speaks of the sun and moon being darkened, and the stars falling from the sky. These things are not to be understood literally, because the Old Testament prophets often described the collapse of a great nation in similar language. Ezekiel's prophecy of the defeat of Egypt by Babylon is an example.

When I snuff you out, I will cover the heavens and darken their stars; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon will not give its light (Ez 32:7).

These words give a graphic description of the collapse of Egypt before a greater power. They were not fulfilled literally, but prophetically they have been fulfilled. Other prophets used the same kind of language to describe the collapse of a nation. The heavenly bodies were used as symbols of human governments, so the fall of a human government was described as the sun and moon falling from the sky.

The disciples were familiar with the Old Testament, so they would have understood Jesus' meaning. The destruction of Jerusalem would not just be a temporary setback for Israel, it would actually cease to exist as a nation. This is what happened. After AD 70, the Jews continued as a people, but they ceased to be a nation with their own government and their own land. They lost their political independence.

For many Jews, this suggestion would be impossible to accept. They traced their political independence right back to Moses. They believed that a time would come when a king of Israel would rule all the nations of the earth. This was a false hope, so Jesus used dramatic language to kill it off. He wanted them to know that Israel would not just be defeated, it would be destroyed. This was a shocking message.

Carcass and Vultures

Jesus final warning was equally strong.

Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather (Matt 24:28).

Jerusalem was a dead corpse. The Old Testament often used vultures as a symbol for the nations that were used to bring the destruction of Israel (Deut 28:49; Hab 1:8). In this case, the Roman soldiers were the vultures who would plunder the carcass of the dying city. This shocked his listeners, but his warning proved to be correct.

Although Jesus gave a drastic warning, he also made a promise for the future. His final words to the Jewish leaders were a message of hope.

Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord" (Matt 23:37-39).

Jesus is pointing to a time when the Jewish people will welcome those who come in his name. They will bless those coming to preach the gospel to them. This has not happened yet, because preaching the gospel in Israel is still illegal. However, the time will come when the trampling of Jerusalem will cease and they will come to faith in Jesus. This will bring great blessing to the world.

The Son of Man in Heaven

A verse that is most often misunderstood is Matthew 24:30.

At that time the sign of the Son of Man in heaven will appear, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory.

The cause of confusion is misleading translation. I have given a literal translation of the Greek text. The important point is that the Son of Man does not appear in the heavens. A sign that the Son of Man is in heaven appears. It is a sign that appears, not the Son of Man. The destruction of Jerusalem was that sign.

Jesus death on the cross looked like a defeat. His disciples claimed that he had risen from the dead and ascended into heaven, but most Jews did not believe them. When the Jewish religious system carried on as usual, it might seem that Jesus had been irrelevant. The destruction of Jerusalem was a vindication of his ministry. God would only allow the temple to be destroyed if he had put something better in its place. The demise of the temple system demonstrated that God was now committed to the new covenant that he had made through Jesus. It was a sign that Jesus really was in heaven.

One purpose of the big prophecy was to explain to Jesus' disciples how he will be vindicated. The destruction of Jerusalem was destroyed in an exact fulfilment of his words. This was proof that what he said was true. It also meant the destruction of those who opposed him, which proved that God was with him and not them. By putting an end to the Jewish system of sacrifices and offerings, God was showing that Jesus was the true saviour. The destruction of the capital city was a sign that Jesus was in seated in heaven at the right hand of the Father, ruling as king over all creation.

Jesus says that people all over the world who have opposed Jesus will be upset when they realise that he has been vindicated.

Then all the tribes of the earth will mourn (Matt 24:30).

The Greek word translated "mourn" means "cut" or "chop". Jesus was saying that people will be upset when they realise that they have been wrong about him. Many will repent and believe.

Coming on the Clouds

In Matthew 24:30, Jesus warned the people of Jerusalem that,

They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory.

This is often misinterpreted as a description of the second coming. The expression "coming on the clouds" is not a description of the second coming of the Lord. The Greek word translated as "coming" is "erchomai". Jesus uses a different word (parousia) in the second part of the chapter, when speaking about the second coming (Matt 24:27,37,39). Parousia means "coming, appearing or presence". The fact that Matthew uses "erchomai" for coming on the clouds shows that he is not speaking of the second coming.

This phrase "coming of the clouds" was often used by the prophets to describe the collapse of a rebellious nation.

See, the LORD rides on a swift cloud
and is coming to Egypt.
The idols of Egypt tremble before him,
and the hearts of the Egyptians melt with fear (Is 19:1).

This was not a reference to the second coming. The context makes it clear that this is a description of the collapse of Egypt. The expression is used in a similar way throughout the Old Testament (Is 13:6; Micah 1:3-5; Ps 97:2,3).

When Jesus spoke of "coming on the clouds" in his Big Prophecy, he was warning that God could not rescue Israel, because they had rejected his rescuer. The Jewish system has been tried and found wanting, so it would be destroyed. The destruction of Jerusalem was also a warning that any nation or system that opposes Christ will eventually be destroyed.

Jesus was also referring back to Daniel 7:13-14,

I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshipped him.

Daniel saw the Son of Man coming on the clouds. This was not the second coming, because the Son of Man went into the presence of God, where he was given authority and sovereign power over all nations. Jesus was promising his listeners that they would live through the time when this part of Daniel's promise would be fulfilled. They would still be living on earth and could not look into heaven, so they needed to see a sign of what was happening in heaven. That sign was the destruction of Jerusalem.

This interpretation of coming on the clouds is confirmed in Matthew 26, where Jesus uses the same expression in his response to the priests, who had put him on trial.

I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven." Then the high priest tore his clothes (Matt 26:63,64).

The priests did not live to see the second coming of Jesus, but they did see the destruction of Jerusalem and the collapse of the temple system. They saw Jesus being vindicated by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the growth of the church. Jesus was describing these events when he spoke of "coming on the clouds".

Flash of Lightning

Jesus warned his disciples to ignore false prophets who claimed that Jesus had returned in secret.

So if anyone tells you, 'There he is, out in the wilderness,' do not go out; or, 'Here he is, in the inner rooms,' do not believe it. For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming (parousia) of the Son of Man (Matt 24:26-27).

This is a parenthesis to explain that the second coming is totally different from what will happen in AD 70. Here John uses the would "Parousia", because he is describing the second coming. Jesus return will light up the sky from one end of the earth to the other. No one will miss this event.

This undermines the popular rapture theory in which Jesus returns to zap his followers off the earth without anyone else seeing him. His second coming will not be a secret event that unbelievers do not see.

The second coming will be so dramatic and glorious that it will be seen by all people throughout the world. Jesus will light up the sky with a glory that is greater than the flashing of lightning. He will be seen from one end of the earth to the other, as his glory lights up the whole earth. No one will miss this event.

Advance of the Gospel

Another sign of Jesus was the advance of the gospel recorded in the Acts of the Apostles.

He will send 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 (Matt 24:3).

The Greek word translated as "angels" can also mean "messengers", which could be better a better translation here. Jesus reigning in heaven sends his followers out as messengers to preach the gospel to the whole world. Their work will bring all those who have been called by Jesus into the Kingdom.

God's grace is no longer restricted to the Jews. The messengers go out to the "four winds". They will go to every corner of the earth, from one to the other. No race or tribe is excluded from the gospel. God will also send his angels to work with his people, as they proclaim the gospel to all the nations of the earth.

The trumpet sound is a call to battle or a new covenant. In this context, the trumpet marks the beginning of a new age and the inauguration of a new covenant, just as the old covenant was announced with the sounding of a trumpet (Ex 19:16; Ex 20:18).

The Fig Tree

Before ending this part of the discourse, Jesus told the parable of the fig tree.

Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near (Matt 24:32).

Much had been made of this parable by stripping it out of its context. Some teachers say that parable represents the modern nation of Israel. This thinking is confused, because Jesus is talking about the destruction of Jerusalem, not the restoration of Israel. There is plenty about that in other passages, so we do not need to twist this parable to refer to it. Jesus gives us the interpretation of the parable, so we cannot impose our own interpretation onto it.

Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door (Matt 24:33).

This is very straightforward. The expression "all these things" again refers to the destruction of Jerusalem.

Just as new leaves on a fig tree are a sign that summer is coming, the destruction of the Jerusalem is a sign that the great advance of the gospel described in the previous verse will get underway. Summer is a time of fruit and harvest. The budding fig tree signifies a bursting forth of new life. The destruction of Jerusalem marked the beginning a new age, when new life will burst forth on the earth.

This could also have been a reference back to another parable.

A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, 'For three years now I've been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven't found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?' 'Sir,' the man replied, 'leave it alone for one more year, and I'll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down' (Luke 13:6-9).

This parable was a challenge to the people of Israel. God had given them a second chance by sending Jesus to them. If that second chance was rejected, Israel would be cut down. The destruction of Jerusalem fulfilled this parable.

The Second Coming

In the second part of Matthew 24, Jesus answered the disciple's second question: what will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age. Jesus begins by saying that there will be no signs for this event.

About that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father (Matt 24:36).

Jesus refused to say when this day would take place. Only the Father knows. Even the angels do not know.

We should be careful about this issue. Jesus refused to say anything more than this. We must not add to his words. If we claim to know the timing of the second coming, we are claiming knowledge that even Jesus was not given, which is arrogant and presumptuous. Many people have been led astray by leaders who claim to know the timing of the second coming. Christians should avoid all such speculation.

There is no room for buts. Many teachers say that they do not know the day or the hours, but they know the month and the year. That is a very dangerous game, because it twists Jesus' words.

Jesus refused to add to his words. He confirmed that people would be going about their usual activities.

Two men will be in the field. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill... (Matt 24:40-41).

These activities would not be taking place, if there were signs warning of the second coming.

Get Ready

Jesus also warned people to be ready.

Therefore, keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him (Matt 24:42-43).

There is no warning about when a thief will strike. No warning is given for the second coming, so it is pointless to guess when it will take place. Christians should be ready at all times. If we are doing all that Jesus requires of them, then will be ready no matter when he comes.

So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him (Matt 24:44).

This warning is followed by three parables, which all stress the need to be prepared: the faithful and wise servant, the ten virgins and the talents. Each of these parables stress that there will be no warning of the master's return. They all suggest that his return may be delayed for a great time. When he does return, there will be no warning. Blessing belongs to those who have made themselves ready, while he delayed.