What Matthew 24 says about "the end"
It is important to avoid misinterpretations, Matthew 24 in the larger context (Context) of the previous chapters. You may be surprised to learn that the history of Matthew 24 begins in Chapter 16, verse 21 at the latest. It says summarily: "Since that time Jesus began to show his disciples how to go to Jerusalem and suffer a lot from the elders and high priests and scribes and to be killed and resurrected on the third day." With this, Jesus gives the first sign of something that in the eyes of the disciples looked like an elementary test of strength between Jesus and the religious authorities in Jerusalem. On the way to Jerusalem (20,17-19) he continues to prepare them for this impending conflict.
At the time of the first announcements of suffering, Jesus took the three disciples Peter, James and John up to a high mountain. There they experienced the transfiguration (17,1-13). Because of this, the disciples must have asked themselves whether the establishment of the kingdom of God might not be imminent (17,10-12).
Jesus further announces to the disciples that they will sit on twelve thrones and judge Israel "when the Son of Man will sit on the throne of his glory" (19,28). No doubt, this again raised questions about the “when” and “how” of the coming of the kingdom of God. Jesus' talk about the kingdom even prompted the mother of James and John to ask Jesus to give her two sons special positions in the kingdom (20,20-21).
Then came the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, in which Jesus entered the city on a donkey (21,1-11). This, according to Matthew, fulfilled a prophecy of Zechariah that was seen in relation to the Messiah. The whole city was on its feet, wondering what would happen if Jesus arrived. In Jerusalem he overturned the money changer tables and demonstrated his messianic authority through further deeds and miracles (21,12-27). "Who is the?" people wondered (21,10).
Then in 21,43 Jesus explained to the chief priests and elders: "Therefore I say to you: The kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people that bears its fruits." His listeners knew he was talking about them. This saying of Jesus could be taken as an indication that he was about to establish his messianic empire, but that the religious "establishment" should be excluded from it.
Is the empire being built?
The disciples who heard this must have wondered what was about to happen. Did Jesus want to immediately proclaim himself the Messiah? Was he about to attack the Roman authorities? Was he about to bring the kingdom of God? Would there be war, and what would happen to Jerusalem and the Temple?
Now we come to Matthew 22, verse 15. Here begins the scene with the Pharisees who want to trap Jesus with questions about the tax. With his answers they wanted to put him as a rebel against the Roman authorities. But Jesus answered wisely, and their plan was thwarted.
The Sadducees also had an argument with Jesus on the same day (22,23-32). They did not believe in the resurrection and also asked him a trick question about seven brothers who married the same woman in succession. Whose wife should she be in the resurrection? Jesus answered indirectly and said that they did not understand their own scriptures. He confused her by saying that there was no marriage in the Reich.
Then, finally, the Pharisees and Sadducees asked him a question about the highest commandment in the law (22,36). He answered wisely by quoting Leviticus 3:19,18 and Deuteronomy 5. And countered with a trick question: Whose son should the Messiah be? (22,42)? Then they had to remain silent; «Nobody could answer him a word, nor did anyone dare to ask him from that day on» (22,46).
Chapter 23 shows Jesus' polemic against the scribes and the Pharisees. Towards the end of the chapter, Jesus announced that he would send them "prophets and sages and scribes" and predicted that they would kill, crucify, flagellate and persecute them. He places responsibility for all the prophets killed on their shoulders. The tension is obviously increasing and the disciples must have wondered what the significance of these confrontations might be. Was Jesus about to take power as the Messiah?
Then Jesus addressed Jerusalem in prayer and prophesied that their house would be "left deserted". This is followed by the puzzling remark: "For I say to you: from now on you will not see me until you say: Praise be to him who comes in the name of the Lord!" (23,38: 39.) The disciples must have puzzled and asked fearful questions about the things that Jesus said. Was he about to explain himself?
The prophesied temple destruction
Then Jesus left the temple. As he went out, his breathless disciples pointed to the temple buildings. With Markus they say: "Master, see what stones and what buildings!" (13,1). Luke writes that the disciples spoke in astonishment of his "beautiful stones and gems" (21,5).
Consider what must have happened in the hearts of the disciples. Jesus' statements about the devastation of Jerusalem and its confrontations with the religious authorities frightened and excited the disciples. You must have wondered why he was talking about the imminent downfall of Judaism and its institutions. Should not Messiah come to strengthen both? From the words of the disciples about the temple sounds indirectly the concern: It should not be done even this mighty church a damage?
Jesus thwarts their hope and deepens their fearful forebodings. He brushes aside her praise from the temple: “Don't you see all of this? Truly, I tell you, there will not be one stone left on the other that will not be broken » (24,2). This must have given the disciples a deep shock. They believed that the Messiah would save Jerusalem and the temple, not destroy it. When Jesus spoke of these things, the disciples must have thought of the end of pagan rule and the glorious rise of Israel; both are prophesied so many times in the Hebrew scriptures. They knew that these events should occur in the "time of the end", in the "last time" (Daniel 8,17; 11,35 and 40; 12,4 and 9). Then the Messiah should appear or "come" to establish the Kingdom of God. This meant that Israel would rise to national size and become the spearhead of the empire.
When will that happen?
The disciples - who believed Jesus to be the Messiah - naturally felt the urge to find out whether the "time of the end" had now come. There were high expectations that Jesus would soon announce that he was the Messiah (John 2,12: 18). No wonder then that the disciples urged Master to explain how and when he "came".
When Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the excited disciples came up to him and wanted some "insider" information privately. "Tell us," they asked, "when will this happen? and what will be the sign of your coming and the end of the world? » (Matthew 24,3.) They wanted to know when the things that Jesus prophesied about Jerusalem would occur, because they no doubt related them to the end times and his "coming."
When the disciples spoke of "coming", they had no "second" coming in mind. According to their imagination, the Messiah should come and very soon establish his kingdom in Jerusalem, and it should last "forever". They did not know a division into a "first" and "second" coming.
Another important point to consider in Matthew 24,3: 24, because the verse is a kind of summary of the entire chapter. The question of the disciples should be repeated and a few key words in italics: “Tell us,” they asked, “when will that happen? and what will be the sign of your coming and the end of the world? » They wanted to know when the things prophesied by Jesus about Jerusalem would come about because they linked them to the "end of the world" (Exactly: end of world time, era) and its «coming».
Three questions of the disciples
Three questions from the disciples emerge. First, they wanted to know when "that" should happen. “That” could mean the devastation of Jerusalem and the temple whose destruction Jesus had just prophesied. Second, they wanted to know which "sign" would announce its coming; Jesus calls it to them, as we shall see, later in chapter 24, verse 30. And third, the disciples wanted to know when the "end". Jesus tells them that this is not for them to know (24,36).
If we look separately at these three questions - and Jesus' answers to them - we will save ourselves a whole series of problems and misinterpretations related to Matthew 24. Jesus tells his disciples, Jerusalem and the temple (the "that") would actually be destroyed during their lifetime. But the “sign” they asked for would be related to his coming, not the destruction of the city. And he replies to the third question that nobody knows the hour of his return and the "end" of world time.
So three questions in Matthew 24 and three separate answers that Jesus gives. These answers decouple events that form a unit in the disciples' questions and cut their temporal connection. Jesus' return and the "end of world time" may well still be in the future, although the destruction of Jerusalem (70 AD) is very far back.
As I said, this does not mean that the disciples viewed the destruction of Jerusalem separately from the “end”. They almost never did that. And they also expected the events to happen soon (Theologians have the technical term "local expectation").
Let's see how these questions are dealt with in Matthew 24. First of all, we find that Jesus apparently has no particular interest in talking about the circumstances of "the end". It is his disciples who drill, who ask questions, and Jesus responds to them and makes some explanations.
We also recognize that the disciples' questions about the "end" are most likely based on a fallacy - that the events would happen very soon, and at the same time. Not surprisingly, they expected Jesus to come as the Messiah in the very near future, in the sense that it could happen in a few days or weeks. Still, they wanted a palpable "sign" of his coming for confirmation. With this initiate or secret knowledge, they wanted to put themselves in advantageous positions when Jesus took his step.
In this context, we should see Jesus' comments from Matthew 24. The disciples stimulate discussion. They believe that Jesus is preparing to take power and want to know the "when". You want a preparatory sign. In doing so, they completely misunderstood Jesus' mission.
The end: not yet
Instead of directly answering the disciples' questions, Jesus uses the opportunity to teach them three important lessons.
The first lesson:
The scenario they were asking for was far more complicated than the disciples thought in their naivety.
The second lesson:
When Jesus would "come" - or as we would say: "come back" - was not for them to know.
The third lesson:
The disciples should "watch", yes, but keep an eye more and more on their relationship with God and less on local or world events. Taking these principles and the previous discussion into account, it is now shown how Jesus' conversation with his disciples develops. First of all, he warns her not to be fooled by events that may look like end-time events but are not (24, 4-8). Drastic and catastrophic «has to happen», «but the end is not yet there» (Verse 6).
Then Jesus announces persecution, chaos and death to the disciples (24,9-13). How frightening it must have been for them! "What is this talk of persecution and death?" you must have thought. The Messiah's followers should triumph and win, not be slaughtered and destroyed, they thought.
Then Jesus begins to speak about the proclamation of a gospel to the whole world. Then "the end should come" (24,14). This too must have confused the disciples. They probably thought that the Messiah would "come" first, then he would establish his kingdom, and only then would the word of the Lord go out into the world (Isaiah 2,1: 4).
Next, Jesus seems to turn around and talks again about the devastation of the temple. There should be an "abomination of desolation in the holy place" and "then flee to the mountains who is in Judea" (Matthew 24,15: 16). Incomparable terror is said to break out over the Jews. "Because then it will be a great distress as it has not been from the beginning of the world until now and will not become again," says Jesus (24,21). It should be so terrible that nobody would be alive if these days were not shortened.
While Jesus' words also have a global perspective, he mainly speaks of events in Judea and Jerusalem. "Because there will be great need over the country and anger over these people," says Luke, which outlines the context of what Jesus said (Luke 21,23, Elberfeld Bible, emphasis from the editors). The temple, Jerusalem and Judea are the focus of Jesus' warning, not the whole world. The apocalyptic warning that Jesus pronounces primarily refers to the Jews in Jerusalem and Judea. The events from AD 66-70. have confirmed that.
Fleeing - on the Sabbath?
It is therefore not surprising that Jesus says: "But ask that your flight not be done in winter or on the Sabbath" (Matthew 24,20). Some wonder: Why does Jesus mention the Sabbath when the Sabbath is no longer binding on the Church? Since Christians no longer have to worry about the Sabbath, why is it specifically mentioned here as an obstacle? The Jews believed that traveling on the Sabbath was forbidden. They apparently even had a measure of the maximum distance that could be covered that day, namely a “Sabbath Walk” (Acts 1,12). For Lukas, this corresponds to the distance between the Mount of Olives and the city center (According to the appendix in the Luther Bible it was 2000 cubits, around 1 kilometer). But Jesus says it is necessary to flee far into the mountains. A “Sabbath walk” would not take them out of the danger zone. Jesus knows that his listeners believe that on the Sabbath they should not take long escape routes.
This explains why he asks the disciples to ask that the flight should not fall on a sabbath. This call is to be seen in the context of their understanding of the Mosaic Law at the time. We can summarize Jesus' reasoning as follows: I know that you do not believe in long journeys on the Sabbath, and you will not do any because you believe the law requires it. So if the things that are about to come to Jerusalem fall on a sabbath, you will not escape them and you will find death. Therefore I advise you: Pray that you do not have to flee on the Sabbath. For even if they decided to flee, the travel restrictions that prevailed generally in the Jewish world, a serious obstacle dar.
As I said, we can relate this part of Jesus' warnings to the destruction of Jerusalem that happened in 70. Jewish Christians in Jerusalem who still kept the law of Moses (Acts 21,17: 26) would be affected and would have to flee. They would come into conflict of conscience with the Sabbath law if circumstances required an escape that day.
Still not the "sign"
Meanwhile, Jesus continued in his speech, which was intended to answer his disciples' three questions about the "when" of his coming. We notice that so far he has only explained to them in principle when he will not be coming. It separates the catastrophe that will strike Jerusalem from the "sign" and the coming "of the end". At this point, the disciples must have believed that the devastation of Jerusalem and Judea was the "sign" they were looking for. But they were wrong, and Jesus points out their error. He says: «If someone will then say to you: Behold, here is the Christ! or there !, you shouldn't believe it » (Matthew 24,23). Don't believe it? What should the disciples think of this? You must have asked yourself: We are begging for an answer as to when he is going to set up his kingdom, we are begging him to call us a sign of it, and he only talks about when the end will not come and names things that look like the sign but are not.
Nevertheless, Jesus continues to tell the disciples when he will not come, will not appear. «So if they say to you: Behold, he is in the desert !, do not go out; behold, he is inside the house !, do not believe it » (24,26). He wants to make it clear that the disciples should not be misled, neither by world events nor by people who thought they knew the sign of the end had come. He may even want to tell them that the fall of Jerusalem and the temple does not yet announce “the end”.
Now verse 29. Here Jesus begins to finally tell the disciples something about the "sign" of his coming, that is, he answers their second question. The sun and moon are supposed to darken, and «the stars» (maybe comets or meteorites) are said to fall from the sky. The whole solar system is to shake.
Finally, Jesus calls the disciples the "sign" that they are waiting for. He says: «And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky. And then all the sexes on earth will lament and will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with great strength and glory » (24,30). Then Jesus asked the disciples to learn a parable from the fig tree (24,32-34). As soon as the branches become soft and the leaves drift, you know that summer is approaching. «Also also: if you see all of this, know that he is close to the door» (24,33).
"All of this" - what is it? Is it just wars, earthquakes and famines here and there? No. This is just the beginning of labor. There are many more hardships before “the end”. Does all of this end with the appearance of false prophets and preaching the gospel? Again, no. Does all of this come true through the need in Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple? No. So what do you have to summarize under “all this”?
Before we answer, a little digress, an anticipation of something the apostolic church had to learn and about which the synoptic gospels tell. The fall of Jerusalem in 70, the destruction of the temple and the death of many Jewish priests and spokesmen (and also some apostles) must have hit the church hard. It is almost certain that the Church believed that Jesus would return immediately after these events. But he stayed away, and that must have offended some Christians.
Now, of course, the Gospels show that a lot more should or should happen before the return of Jesus than just the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. Because of Jesus' absence after the fall of Jerusalem, the Church could not conclude that she had been misled. All three synoptics repeat the teaching for the church: until you see the "sign" of the Son of Man appearing in the sky, do not listen to those who say that he has already come or will soon come.
Nobody knows about the hour
Now we come to the core message that Jesus wants to convey in Matthew 24's dialogue. His words in Matthew 24 are less prophetic, rather they are a teaching statement about Christian living. Matthew 24 is Jesus' warning to the disciples: Always be spiritually ready, precisely because you do not know and can know when I will come back. The parables in Matthew 25 illustrate the same basic message. Accepting this - that the time is unknown and remains - clears up many misunderstandings around Matthew 24 at one stroke. The chapter says that Jesus does not want to make any prophecies about the exact time of the "end" or His return. The "watch" means: be constantly mentally awake, always be prepared. And not: keep track of world events. A "when" prophecy is not given.
As seen in later history, Jerusalem was indeed the focal point of many turbulent events and developments. 1099, for example, the Christian Crusaders surrounded the city and slaughtered all the inhabitants. During World War I, British General Allenby captured the city and dissolved it from the Turkish Empire. And today, as we all know, Jerusalem and Judea play a central role in the Jewish-Arab conflict.
To sum up: When asked by the disciples about the "when" of the end, Jesus answers: "You cannot know that." A statement that was and is apparently difficult to digest. After his resurrection, the disciples still pressed him with questions about: "Lord, will you re-establish the kingdom for Israel in this time?" (Acts 1,6). And again Jesus replies: "You should not know the time or hour that the Father has determined in his power ..." (Verse 7).
Despite Jesus 'clear teaching, Christians have repeated the apostles' mistake at all times. Again and again speculations about the time of the "end" accumulated, again and again Jesus' coming was predicted immediately. But history has made Jesus right and wrong for every number juggler. Quite simply: we cannot know when “the end” will come.
What should we do now while we wait for Jesus to return? Jesus answers the disciples, and the answer also applies to us. He says: “Watch therefore; because you don’t know what day your Lord is coming ... so you’re ready too! Because the Son of Man comes at an hour when you don't mean it » (Matthew 24,42: 44). Being vigilant in the sense of "observing world events" is not meant here. The “watch” refers to the Christian relationship with God. He must always be prepared to face his creator.
In the rest of Chapter 24 and Chapter 25, Jesus then explains in more detail what is meant by "guards". In the parable of the faithful and the evil servant, he encourages the disciples to avoid worldly sins and not to be overwhelmed by the attraction of sin (24,45-51). The moral? Jesus says that the lord of the bad servant will "come on a day when he does not expect it and at an hour that he does not know" (24,50).
A similar teaching is conveyed in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (25,1-25). Some of the virgins are not ready, not "awake" when the groom comes. You are excluded from the empire. The moral? Jesus says: "Watch therefore! Because you know neither day nor hour » (25,13). In the parable of the entrants entrusted, Jesus speaks of himself as a person who goes on a journey (25,14-30). He was probably thinking about his stay in heaven before his return. The servants should now manage the entrusted to trustful hands.
Finally, in the parable of the sheep and goats, Jesus speaks of the pastoral duties given to the disciples for the time of his absence. Here he directs her attention from the "when" of his coming to the consequences that this coming has for her eternal life. His coming and resurrection are said to be their day of judgment. The day that Jesus the sheep (his true successors) from the goats (the evil shepherd) separates.
In the parable, Jesus works with symbols based on the physical needs of the disciples. They fed him when he was hungry, gave him drink when he was thirsty, took him up when he was a stranger, clothed him when he was naked. The disciples were surprised and said that they had never seen him as such.
But Jesus wanted to clarify the virtues of shepherds. «Truly, I tell you: What you did to one of these least of my brothers, you did to me» (25,40). Who is a brother of jesus One of his true successors. So Jesus commands the disciples to be good stewards and shepherds of his flock - his church.
This is how the long discourse in which Jesus answers the three questions of his disciples ends: When is Jerusalem and the temple destroyed? What will be the "sign" of his coming? When does the “end of world time” occur?
The disciples are shocked to hear that the temple buildings are to be destroyed. They ask when this should happen and when "the end" and Jesus "coming" should occur. As I said, in all likelihood they expected Jesus to ascend the throne of the Messiah and let the kingdom of God begin with all his might and glory. Jesus warns against this way of thinking. There will be a delay before "the end". Jerusalem and the temple will be destroyed, but the life of the church will go on. Persecution of Christians and terrible tribulations will come over Judea. The disciples are shocked. They had thought that the disciples of the Messiah would achieve an immediate resounding victory, that the Promised Land would be conquered, that true worship would be restored. And now these predictions of temple destruction and persecution of the faithful. But there are other terrifying lessons to be learned. The only "sign" that the disciples of Jesus' coming will see is his coming himself. This "sign" no longer has a protective function because it is too late. All of this leads to Jesus' core message that no one can predict when “the end” will come or when Jesus will return.
Jesus took up the wrong thoughts of his disciples' worries and derived a spiritual teaching from them. In the words of DA Carson: “The questions of the disciples are answered and the reader is obliged to look forward to the Lord's return and to live responsibly, faithfully, humanely and courageously as long as the Master is away (24,45-25,46) » (ibid., p. 495).
by Paul Kroll