Jesus has urged his disciples to flee Jerusalem when they see it surrounded by armies. And history tells us that the withdrawal of the first Roman siege in AD 66 did give Christians the opportunity to leave the city. In Matthew 24:20 Jesus tells them to pray that their flight may not be on a Sabbath. Why would Christ be concerned? Is he telling us that we should observe the Sabbath today? Jesus does not imply that Sabbath-keeping should be done today or is the reason why they should pray to avoid traveling then. Sabbath-keeping by the Jews would make traveling by the Christians difficult. Normally strangers could ask for food and shelter at Jewish homes and be received. Sabbath breakers would be refused and rejected. In other words, it would create an obstacle—a difficulty—to travel. So avoiding the Sabbath has the same idea as the other part of the verse—avoid the winter. Both those conditions would simply make traveling difficult.
Verse 21 is important. Here we learn that this time of attack on Jerusalem would include “great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. Let these words sink in. No tribulation that Jerusalem faced in the past would be as bad as this. That includes Nebuchadnezzar’s capture and destruction of the city. Neither would Jerusalem ever again face so great a tribulation as during this time of the temple’s destruction. And history tells us that this was indeed a terrible time. In his Wars of the Jews, Josephus, the Jewish historian who was in Jerusalem at the time of the AD 70 siege, provides a description.
Book V.1.3 “. . .the dead bodies of strangers were mingled together with those of their own country, and those of profane persons with those of the priests, and the blood of all sorts of dead carcasses stood in lakes in the holy courts themselves.”
Book V.1.5 “And now, as the city was engaged in a war on all sides, from these treacherous crowds of wicked men, the people of the city, between them, were like a great body torn in pieces.”
Book V.1.5 “. . .they fought against each other, while they trod upon the dead bodies as they lay heaped one upon another, and taking up a mad rage from those dead bodies that were under their feet, became the fiercer thereupon. They, moreover, were still inventing somewhat or other that was pernicious against themselves; and when they had resolved upon any thing, they executed it without mercy, and omitted no method of torment or of barbarity.”
Book V.11.1 “So the soldiers, out of the wrath and hatred they bore the Jews, nailed those they caught, one after one way, and another after another, to the crosses, by way of jest, when their multitude was so great, that room was wanting for the crosses, and crosses wanting for the bodies.”
Book V.12.3 “Then did the famine widen its progress, and devoured the people by whole houses and families; the upper rooms were full of women and children that were dying by famine, and the lanes of the city were full of the dead bodies of the aged; the children also and the young men wandered about the market-places like shadows, all swelled with the famine, and fell down dead, wheresoever their misery seized them.” “A deep silence also, and a kind of deadly night, had seized upon the city; while yet the robbers were still more terrible than these miseries were themselves; for they brake open those houses which were no other than graves of dead bodies, and plundered them of what they had; and carrying off the coverings of their bodies, went out laughing, and tried the points of their swords in their dead bodies; and, in order to prove what metal they were made of they thrust some of those through that still lay alive upon the ground.”
Book VI.3.4 One woman seized “her son, who was a child sucking at her breast, [and] she said, ‘O thou miserable infant! for whom shall I preserve thee.’” “As soon as she had said this, she slew her son, and then roasted him, and eat [sic] the one half of him, and kept the other half by her concealed.”
This entire description, even to the account of the mother consuming her own son, matches the warning given by God if the Israelites would forsake following him. In Deuteronomy 28 we read in verse 45: “All these curses shall come upon you and pursue you and overtake you till you are destroyed, because you did not obey the voice of the Lord your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that he commanded you. Verse 49: “The Lord will bring a nation against you from far away, from the end of the earth, swooping down like the eagle, a nation whose language you do not understand.” Verses 52-53: “They shall besiege you in all your towns, until your high and fortified walls, in which you trusted, come down throughout all your land. And they shall besiege you in all your towns throughout all your land, which the Lord your God has given you. And you shall eat the fruit of your womb, the flesh of your sons and daughters, whom the Lord your God has given you, in the siege and in the distress with which your enemies shall distress you.”
Therefore we read from the pen of a non-Christian Jewish historian the exact fulfillment of God’s words almost 1300 years earlier. And from that description we can understand why Jesus said that this was not only great tribulation but the greatest that Jerusalem would experience. It would seem fittingly so since this is the symbolic point at which God turns his back on the nation. Verse 22 tells us that the time of this tribulation would be cut short by the mercy of God for the elect (perhaps those still to become Christians, perhaps Christians still in the city).
Now Jesus begans to draw the distinction between this event—his main subject matter ever since leaving the temple—and his second coming at the end of the age. He warns in verse 23 that if someone should say that Christ has returned, do not believe it. He tells them that false Christs will arise. In other words, this temple destruction does not coincide with his return.
Jesus now uses the contrast of dark and light to pit the temple destruction event against his coming to show their distinction. The elements of the temple’s destruction were dark, secret, and hidden. In verse 26 he says, “So, if they say to you, ‘Look he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it.” Then in verse 27 Christ shows the contrast of his coming: “For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” In verse 29 Jesus returns to the darkness of the temple destruction event: “[But] immediately after the tribulation of those days, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” The darkening of sun, moon, and stars is often used in the Bible to show the displeasure of God against a people (e.g., Ecc 12:2; Isa 13:10, Jer 15:9; Eze 32:7-8; Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15; Amos 8:9; Micah 3:6). Then in verses 30-31 Christ shows once more the contrast of his coming: “Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” Thus, we have pictured darkness associated with the temple destruction and any mention of Christ’s return at that time is secretive and hidden. But when Christ really does return it will be nothing like that darkness and secrecy. His return will light up the sky. And at his return he will gather his people to himself.
The parallel passage in Luke 21, verses 25 and 26 parallel Matthew 24:29 and the darkness of the tribulation and its effects through this age concerning rejection of Christ. Luke 21:27-28 parallels Matthew 24:30-31 and the coming of Christ at the end of the age in power and glory and light. Luke 21:28 says “Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Jesus tells his disciples (including us) that although the world is thrown into darkness after the tribulation (AD 70) with rejection of Christ all around—even to the persecution at times of his people. Look up or be prepared. Christ will come in power and glory and light to redeem us.
Verse 28 in the middle of this section may seem odd. Jesus says, “Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” Corpse? Vultures? What is he talking about? This is simply an expression, much like “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” In describing his coming Jesus is saying that when you see the sky light up, it means he’s coming. The lighting of the sky corresponds to his coming just as surely as smoke comes with fire and vultures come to corpses.
Now that Jesus corrected the disciples’ presumption (see Matthew Part 34) that calamitous events must presage Christ’s return and he cleared their confusion that the temple destruction and his coming were the same event, Jesus is now ready to answer their questions. Remember their questions concerned the timing and the indication of “these things.” So Jesus will discuss timing and indication first of the temple destruction and then of his coming. Matthew 24:32 through 35 relates to the temple destruction.
Jesus provides another where-there’s-smoke-there’s-fire illustration. He says that when the fig tree puts out leaves, you know the summer is near. In other words, that sign of leafiness indicates the coming summer. Drawing attention then back to the temple destruction, Jesus says that when they see those things (the abomination of desolation—the armies surrounding Jerusalem), it is a sign, as sure as the leaves on the fig tree, that Jerusalem is about to be destroyed. Further, he tells them, “This generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” Notice he is speaking of the temple destruction, not of his coming. We can’t be confused about this as the disciples were at the beginning. They are separate events. And the destruction of the temple has been the main focus throughout so far. It is what Jesus began speaking about, and it is what Jesus focused on through the chapter so far, noting only by way of contrast that that event was not his coming. So in answering the disciples’ question of timing, he tells them that the destruction of the temple would occur within a generation. Normally a generation is about 40 years, and it was exactly 40 years from this conversation (AD 30) until the temple was destroyed in AD 70.
Notice the first word of the next verse (24:36). “But” begins this verse to signify contrast. He just told them both the timing and the indication (sign) of the temple’s destruction. “But,” he says, “concerning that day and hour,”—(which day? The day of the other event of the disciples’ question—his coming)—“concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” Here is how we know for certain that Jesus is separating the events of temple destruction and his coming. He has given sign and time of the temple destruction. But he leads off this verse telling us that we cannot know the time of his coming. Furthermore, he goes on to tell us that there will not be any indication—any sign—of his coming either. People will be living their normal routine (verse 37-38), and “they were unaware” of the coming flood.
Jesus is now focusing on his coming. And his focus concerns preparation for that coming. He tells us that we must be prepared because we don’t know the time and we won’t be given any indication. How do we prepare for his coming? We must belong to him. We must answer the gospel call to follow our Lord and Savior. That is preparation for his coming. Without that, we will be eternally lost. The remaining verses of this chapter and the entire 25th chapter emphasize this point—be prepared.
By way of illustration, Jesus first compares the situation to a homeowner who will either be awake to stave off a thief or will sleep, allowing the thief to rob his home. We cannot be like the sleepy homeowner. We must be prepared (having faith in our Lord).
Next Jesus speaks of a servant who must perform his responsibilities while his master is away. A good servant will be focused on performing those responsibilities (having faith in our Lord). The wicked servant will not care about his master’s concerns. When the master arrives (at an unknown time and without any indication), he will deal harshly with the wicked servant and award the good servant. Notice that both are identified as servants. This indicates that the world does not have two kingdoms—one of Christ and one of Satan. There is just one kingdom and one king. All creatures are servants. The rebellious, unprepared ones will suffer eternal loss. Those prepared (having faith in our Lord) will live forever in relationship with him.
Chapter 25 includes three parables. Again, we must be careful to treat them as parables and not as allegories. Usually in an allegory we may try to discover a symbolic meaning for each element. But a parable is merely a story to teach a principle. In the first parable, 10 virgins are waiting to accompany the bridegroom to the wedding feast. This was a custom of Hebrew weddings in that time. It was nighttime and five were prepared with oil for their lamps. The other five did not bother to prepare. When the bridegroom came (at an unknown time and without any indication), the five unprepared could not go with him. Thus, this parable emphasizes being prepared.
The second parable also emphasizes being prepared but with a further thought. A master leaves on a journey. He gives money to each of three servants to manage while he is away. When he returns the servant who was given 5 talents has invested and come up with an additional 5 talents. (A talent is a huge sum equivalent to about 6000 denarii or about 20 years wages for a common laborer.) The servant given 2 talents also produced 2 more. But the servant given 1 talent (still a huge sum) decided not to invest and just returned it back again to the master. He is characterized as wicked and deserving of punishment while the others are praised. Again, this is a parable not an allegory. We cannot try to assign symbolic meaning to the amounts given or to investing habits. The point of the parable is that we do not know when our Lord will return, but we must be prepared. And that preparation makes us perform differently. In the first parable, the virgins were prepared and then slept until the bridegroom came. In this parable we see that the preparation relates to a prolonged activity and outlook for the good servants. Now, that does not mean that the process of salvation is something drawn out or that requires our works over time. But it does show that those who have prepared (having faith in our Lord) will live as servants with an outlook for their Lord’s concerns.
Finally, the last parable (and it is a parable) pictures Christ after his coming, separating the good from the bad. At first it appears that the separation is on the basis of works. Those who dealt kindly with the brothers of Christ were awarded the kingdom. Those who dealt harshly with the brothers of Christ were cast out. We must first understand that the brothers of Christ are those who have faith in him as Lord and Savior. Matthew 12:46-50 makes this clear.
But how does caring for other Christians qualify for relationship with Christ? In Matthew 10, the disciples are being sent out to proclaim the message of Christ. In verses 14-15 we are told, “And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.” Conversely, in verses 40 and 42 we are told, “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will be no means lose his reward.”
So we understand that there is a link between concern for the people of Christ and one’s own relationship with Christ. In other words, you can’t be concerned about the people of Christ for Christ’s sake without already having been prepared (having faith in our Lord). This mirrors the lessons taught by Christ in Matthew 12:36: “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned,” and by Paul in Romans 2:6-10. The Bible teaches that redemption is accomplished and applied. It was accomplished by Christ through his sinless life, vicarious death, and glorious resurrection. It is applied by Christ on the basis of faith. We do not earn salvation; we cannot merit salvation. It is all of Christ. However, once we are saved—once Christ has become Savior and Lord—we are able to act, still by the grace of God, in a manner consistent with our Lord. Therefore, good works (as James points out) will accompany faith.