Matthew 24:3—28, Don’t Be Distracted But Be Ready for the End of Things

[November 11, 2012] The following are some summarizing notes on this passage.

24:2—Here Jesus describes the literal (i.e., the historic) destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. This is God’s judgment on the Judaism of the Second Temple. From now on Judaism would take form and develop in the absence of a material Temple and its sacrifices and rites and priesthood. It would be increasingly characterized by the synagogue, centered on the Word.

The Questions (Matthew 24:3)

24:3—The disciples ask two questions. “When will these things be?” referring to the catastrophe of 23:33—24:2, and “What will be the sign of Your coming and the consummation of the age?” In their minds these two questions are conflated, but it turns out that, while they are related, they are separate. Jesus answers both questions, though probably not to their satisfaction, and says more. He always makes the point that He wants to make, without regard to the limitations of the question.

Q2: The Sign of His Coming (24:4-14)

24:4-8—The things described in these verses will happen, but they do not mean that the end is yet. They are only the beginning of birth pangs. The delivery itself can take a long time, and it may have complications. The important thing to observe is the warning given in verse 4 with regard to false leaders—“See that no one mislead you”—and verse 6 with regard to events—“See that ye be not disturbed.” In terms of the first matter, many will come claiming to be the Anointed One—that is, they will claim to be the deliverer, or to have the answers if people will only follow them. In terms of the second matter, there will be wars, famines, pestilences, earthquakes and rumors of the same. Famines and pestilences may follow on the heels of the wars and human exploits or on the heels of natural disasters (which might also be the result of human exploits). Regardless, in view of what humanity has become in its alienation and—indeed—hostility to God and reality itself, these things must and will take place. But in themselves they do not indicate the end. They are merely horsemen riding ahead and announcing that the end is inevitable—not that it is necessarily any time soon (though it might be!). The disciples, however, are not to be alarmed or disturbed, and shaken from their peace, or distracted from their single focus and resolve. They are to continue to trust in their heavenly Father no matter what their circumstances, for their Father will take care of them, and they are to be faithful in loyalty and fealty to Jesus Himself and faithful in the pattern that He has given them.

24:9-12—These verses focus more on the experience of the believers rather than on what is happening all around them. They will be persecuted (verse 9). This does not mean that they will be persecuted only as the end approaches, but rather that they will be persecuted all along the way, from the beginning to the end. The word “then” does not necessarily have a sequential sense (after that, then this will happen next). It might simply mean, at that time, or during that time, then. Verse 9 speaks of the fact of persecution while verse 10 speaks of how many will not survive it but will give in under the pressure and turn in their former friends, and many will succumb to the temptation to hate each other. Verse 11: in order to evade persecution and scandal, many false prophets will arise and shall mislead many—both “Christians” and unbelievers. They will announce a false “Gospel” that avoids the way of the cross, and they will announce a Jesus that is intellectually and socially palatable (whether to the “conservatives” or among the “radicals”), a Jesus who is comprehensible to the mind and without contradiction. Not only will they be reacting to the persecution of Christians, but they will also reacting to the wars, famines, pestilences and earthquakes. People will be restless, and they will be contributing to the rotting of the culture. Verse 12: “Lawlessness will prevail”—this means more than just anarchy. It refers to the breakdown of “order,” not just legally but in terms of culture. Without a unifying principle, culture will lose its bearings and people will be at a loss to find a sense of meaning. They will be left to invent meaning, but without a sense of direction; they will have no compass; they will be lost. As a result, they will be desperate to distract themselves. They will distract themselves with pleasures and thrills until they have become calloused and numb and without feeling. The love of the most—including those who profess to believe—will grow cold. The love that is to characterize the disciples of Jesus (see chapter 18, for example) will become rare. Christians will only care about themselves, satisfied that they “believe” certain things, and feeling self-justified by the causes they espouse. The arousal of their feelings will be for stimulation, for the thrill and pleasure of it, or to keep them “motivated” (as in a contemporary worship service); their passion will not be the passion of love for one another—that has sensitivity and delicacy as well as strength and resolve—that issues out of their love of God and Christ. Such will be the culture of the world’s several Christendoms.

24:13-14—But whoever is among the few who endure to the end, this one will be saved. These are the disciples who save their souls by enduring the loss of their souls. They persevere to the end. The salvation that Jesus speaks of is the salvation of the soul (Matthew 10:39; 16:25; see Luke 21:19; Hebrews 10:39 and 1 Peter 1:5, 9, 22, etc.). There will be few who endure, but a few who will. This is the sign of His coming—the sign of His having come, and the sign that He will come. The endurance of the saints, who embody the church and who do not just profess “faith,” these are a continual sign to Israel of God’s grace through the Messiah Jesus, and they are a continual sign to the world of its being under the sentence of God’s judgment, a judgment that will one day come and end it. This is the answer to the disciples’ second question (about the sign of His coming). The answer to their first question will soon follow. The existence of the church (and those in it who endure the terrible times that the church must go through during its long existence) is the sign of His coming. Through it, that is, through those who are faithful to Christ within it, the Gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole inhabited earth, and then the end will come. The Gospel of the kingdom is the good spell (story) of the Lord’s coming. His coming is the nearness of the kingdom of the heavens (3:2; 4:17), the kingdom that will overcome the enemies of God and everything that opposes Him in us, in our souls and in our societies. This is the Gospel properly proclaimed, not the superficial “gospel campaign” of culture-plunderers. The Gospel (ev-angel) of the kingdom, preached and embodied in its messengers (angels) will be a witness or testimony—or evidence—of its truth to the gentiles, for which they will then be held accountable, for their response to it. “Then shall come the end.” For this alone—as indefinable as it is—the end will wait.

Q1: When Will These Things Be? (24:15-28)

24:15-20—These verses speak “outwardly” of the desecration of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans. The Temple was desecrated in 168 BC by the Syrian Antiochus Epiphanes IV (see Daniel 11:21-35; the “abomination of desolation” is mentioned in 11:31 and 12:11). The Jews—including Jesus—celebrate in remembrance of the rededication of the altar and Temple after that event. The Emperor Gaius Caligula threatened to do the same in 40 when he ordered the erection of a statue of himself in the Temple. It did not happen. The event that Jesus speaks of refers to August 10, 70 AD, when the Temple was destroyed by the Roman legions under the general Titus. When that desecration occurs, Jesus tells His listeners, they must evacuate the city immediately and head for the hills. They must not let anything delay them but flee at once. The need for haste will be so great that those with child or a baby in their arms will be in danger. If winter or the Sabbath delays them, so much the worse will they be.

In the face of God’s judgment, we must let go of that to which we would cling. In Luke’s gospel, in just this context, Jesus recalls Lot’s wife (Luke 17:32). There Jesus goes on to say that we must be willing to lose our soul if we would keep it. It is not that we are to flee from God’s judgment; for this we should not do, as Jesus did not, but rather we should obediently submit to it, acknowledging the rightness of God’s judgment and loving God for who He is. Rather, we must let go of that which God has condemned. We must not go back to get it, or let it hold us up, or look back on it with regret. No, we must flee from it, not from the God who would judge it.

Stanley Hauerwas suggests that there is another meaning here. This historical catastrophe will happen, but as momentous as it will be, it will only be the outward symbol or sign of something even more momentous. The real catastrophe of universal proportions will be the desecration of Jesus Himself on the cross. No other abomination of desolation was greater than this! He—in His humanity, His body—is the reality of the Temple of God on earth. Jesus Himself is the nearness of the kingdom of God. He is the kingdom of God. As we would later come to understand (as John saw), His embodiment is the divine “I AM” in the midst of Israel, in the midst of the world. On the cross His body was utterly desecrated, insulted and destroyed. He Person, in His humanity, was desecrated and defiled. This too, this more than anything before or since, was the act of God’s judgment. Not only was it the act of God’s judgment, it revealed God’s wrath against—not only Israel, but—humanity itself (Romans 1:18).

In the receiving of the Gospel, when we realize what has happened on the cross, we too must flee, flee from ourselves (our souls), from the world that God has condemned, from our sins, from whatever would distract us from God, or hold us up, or slow us down. The call of the Gospel—in the reality of the cross of Christ—demands no less a radical response from us than the earthly destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. We must forsake all to follow Jesus, or in more practical terms, we must be willing to forsake it all. Our hold on things must be this light, that the demand of the Gospel can whisk us away from them without any regrets.

24:21-22—These verses describe the tribulation of the days of Titus in hyperbolic terms. For the Jewish people, it was an unutterable catastrophe to which nothing can be compared. It gives us a measure with which to consider the suffering of Jesus on the cross, which truly was a great tribulation, “such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now nor ever shall be.” For when the Messiah suffered on the cross, He bore the judgment of God to an extent that no one before or since has ever done. For when we are abandoned by God for our sins, and suffer temporally, our abandonment is only provisional—a sign, as it were. No one has ever truly been abandoned by God, not even in death. We have all abandoned God and God turns His back on us. But never completely! He sustains us in our lives. He allows us to continue living, in His mercy, and He allows us to die, in His mercy, and He keeps us in Hades, in His mercy. We suffer sometimes great anguish, great anguish of soul. We might long to end it all, no matter what we must endure for it to end. But no one has suffered the anguish of Jesus when He was abandoned by God as He bore the weight of our sins on His soul. The death of His soul on the cross was true death, not the mercy of death that we experience.

When Jesus cried out, “My God, My God, why have You abandoned Me?” at noon, the sun hid its face and darkness covered the whole land until His death three hours later; the veil of the Temple was torn in two from the top to the bottom (symbolizing its destruction in 70 AD), the earth began to shake and come apart and break open, and even Hades began to cough up its dead. Perhaps if this time had been prolonged further, the entire creation would have come apart: “If those days had not been cut short, no flesh had been saved; but on account of the elect those days shall be cut short.” Thank God, His dying under the wrath of God was cut short.

24:23-26—These verses recall the false messiahs of verse 5 and the false prophets of verse 11. “For there shall arise false Christs and false prophets.” The warning earlier was, “See that no one mislead you!” Now Jesus says, “They shall give great signs and wonders so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect.” They will have the ability not only to lead people astray but to do so by deceiving them. If someone says, “Here is the Christ,” by which we may understand the ultimate answer or solution. Jesus says emphatically, “Do not believe it.” But they may say that they are talking about Christ. “If therefore they say to you, ‘Behold, He is in the desert,’ do not go forth; ‘Behold, He is in the inner chambers,’ do not believe it.” These false prophets are telling you that the answer is a secret and that they can only give it to you “in the desert” or “in the inner room” (usually after you pay them lavishly for their efforts). You must go somewhere (where they are) where they alone can pass the esoteric information on to you. Jesus says, Do not go to them, and, Do not believe it. The only Christ we are given is the Christ of the Gospel, the One to whom Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and the New Testament apostles bear witness. There is no other “Jesus,” and certainly no other “Christ” or Messiah. When the Gnostic Jesus or some other fabricated Jesus is offered to you, do not believe what you are being given. It is not He. ALL of them will lead you astray! “Behold, I have told you beforehand.” We have no excuse.

Reading 2 Peter 2 as a foretelling and the Epistle of Jude as a description, the Christian proto-Gnostic movements (for example, the Docetists) began to emerge at about the time of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, in the years 70-90 AD, in the leadership vacuum left behind by the death of such leaders as Peter and Paul and the demoralization that ensued after the imperial persecution and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the failure of Jesus to return. These verses (24:23-26) speak of the time following the destruction of the Temple.

Likewise, if the underlying import of this symbol is the meaning of His own death, then this likewise has the affect of overwhelming the conscience so that people feel compelled to deny it and seek for some other more esoteric meaning, or avoid it altogether. Liberal Christians refuse to give it its due weight. His death has a significance analogous to, say, Socrate’s. Those who choose the imaginary gospel of “Q” over Mark’s gospel as more original like to point out that “Q” has no account of Jesus’ death. It is a collection of “wisdom sayings.” Muslims, who accept the virgin birth, believe, like many of the Gnostics, that Jesus never died. They look elsewhere—He is in the desert, or in the inner chambers. We cannot accept the scale of what that death—being God’s own human death—must mean, and so we turn to heresies, anything in fact, to get away from the brute fact of it.

24:27—Jesus does not tell us when His coming will be, but He does tell us the manner of it. It will be instantaneous, like a flash of lightning which lights up the sky from east to west. His coming, which will be the universal manifestation of the revelation of who He is, will happen all at once. It will, in this way, be like the morning of the resurrection. His body was destroyed on the cross. Yet on Easter morning He arose, His body recreated. No one in fact saw Him arise. It was, probably, instantaneous. Indeed, if the Shroud of Turin is any indication (and it might not be), the image on that cloth is that of a photograph, made instantaneously by a tremendous burst of light. What the exact scientific explanation is (see Frank J. Tipler), is beside the point. What is clear is that His initial coming as the Son of Man happened on the morning of His resurrection, and it was instantaneous, though He got up and walked out of the Tomb, if indeed He needed to (since He was now everywhere and could manifest Himself at will wherever He chose), and appeared repeatedly to His chosen witnesses in different settings in the coming weeks. The universal manifestation of His revelation to human consciousness will likewise be instantaneous.

It is to the resurrected Jesus that we are to look for our salvation and the deliverance of the world and the redemption of the creation. The resurrected Jesus is the key to our own and the creation’s divinization. There is no telos higher than this, and Jesus forbids us to look anywhere else. “Do not get side-tracked; do not be led astray; do not follow anyone else; do not go to them; do not believe whatever they might tell you.”

24:28—“For wherever the carcass is, there will the vultures be gathered.” The carrion is the rotting culture that has refuses to know itself in the light of the Gospel. It is alienated from reality because it has taken up arms against God. Fearful of its own guilt, it cannot hear the proclamation of God’s mercy, and with violence shuts out its own knowledge of God. By the mercy of God, that it might have time to repent, it is left alive, but it isolates itself in what is dead, the flesh of its ego is rotting away. And the vultures—of false prophets and messiahs—feed on its rotting flesh for their own sustenance. The false prophets flock to wherever the carrion is. This is the time in which we live, in which the church has been living for centuries.

The Salvation of Israel (24:29-31)

24:29-30—Again, this passage has a double, an inner and outer meaning. The tribulation of those days refers on the one hand to the dying of the Son of Man. The heavenly signs of verse 29 followed His death. These celestial signs reflect the disruption of the intelligent powers of the heavens, the angelic realm. The language, however, is apocalyptic, and we think of the end of the age, and so it will be then too. Before we get there, however, the cross on which the wrath and mercy of God is revealed from heaven (Romans 1:18) becomes now “the sign of the Son of Man [who is] in heaven” which shines forth in the proclamation of the Gospel. This sign has been appearing since the day of the resurrection until now (during the whole time of verses 4-14), and it will continue to appear wherever the Gospel is truly proclaimed.

When the fullness of the gentiles has come in (Romans 11:25), “all the tribes of the land will lament,” on account of this sign, “and they shall see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.”

24:31—At that time, when the Son of Man appears, which we have explained as the universal manifestation of the revelation of His Person, the Son of Man will send His angels to gather Israel (all twelve tribes) from the four extremes of the heavens and will at last establish them in the Promised Land under His blessing.

These last verses speak of the fulfillment of the promises made by the prophets of Israel with respect to Israel, not just the Jews but the northern kingdom lost to history as well. What follows this refers mostly to the Messiah’s own people, His believers within Israel and from among the gentiles. The last parable, concerning the judgment of the sheep and goats refer to the Son of Man’s judgment of the gentiles (which will be on the basis of 10:40-42; 18:5, etc.).

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