The words of Christ in the twenty-fourth chapter of Matthew have caused far more consternation and confusion than they really should have. The key, as before, is to look at how the passages quoted from the Old Testament are used in the New Testament, and then at how the events of the first century actually unfolded. “Then Jesus went out and departed from the temple, and His disciples came up to show Him the buildings of the temple. And Jesus said to them, “Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down” (Matt. 24:1-42)
The first thing to do is place the prophecy. When we seek to understand where this prophecy should be placed in time, we should look for direct teaching in the passage on it. And fortunately, that is what we find.
First, Jesus had told the disciples that not one stone would be left on another one (vv. 1-2). This statement prompts the disciples to ask a series of questions. The way they are usually read, they are detached and unrelated questions. “When will this happen? And when will a bunch of other things happen?” But it is far more natural to take their questions as all relating to the same series of events–the destruction of the temple, the sign of Christ’s coming (in judgment on Jerusalem), and the sign of the end of the (Judaic) age. This is one time indicator.
The second indication is the phrase “this generation.” Using a “literal” means of interpreting, how are we to understand Jesus’ words in v. 34? “Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.” Let us take His words at face value–all those things which He mentioned prior to v. 34 would occur within a generation (i.e. within about forty years). This would bring us to the culminating events of 70 AD.
But . . . How is this possible? When we read those things mentioned prior to v. 34, and then go outside and look at the sky, we see that they appear not to have taken place. Scoffers have frequently seized on this point, thinking that Christ was obviously wrong about when the end of the world would be. But the problem is that He was not talking about the end of the world at all. He was not asked about the end of the world. He was asked about the destruction of Jerusalem, and He answered the question. He was speaking about the end of the age.
Here are some key questions. If we believe that our Lord requires us to place His words in the first century, how is this to be understood without doing violence to the text?
First, consider that the “end is not yet.” The first series of troubles (vv. 3-13) in this passage are commonly cited as signs of the end. This is curious, because Jesus mentioned them in order to tell us that they did not mean that the end had arrived.
Next, we should note the “witness to the nations.” The gospel was to go forth, and was to be proclaimed under heaven. And then the end would come. Did this happen? The Bible says yes. Note that this witness is not the same thing as fulfillment of the Great Commission. First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, that your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world” (Rom. 1:8). “. . . if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard, which was preached to every creature under heaven, of which I, Paul, became a minister (Col. 1:23).
Third, we have to deal with our curiosity about the “abomination of desolation.” This abomination had already occurred once, under the tyranny of Antiochus Epiphanes. Jesus says it will happen again in the holy place (v. 15), and affect everyone in Judea (v. 16). This probably refers to the desecration of the temple which occurred under the Jewish rebels against Rome, although some apply it to the Romans themselves.
Fourth, the lights go out. Jesus here quotes from Isaiah 13:10, a prophecy which Isaiah delivered against the king of Babylon (13:1). In the Old Testament, in every place that collapsing solar system terminology is used, it always refers to the destruction of a nation.
Then there is the matter of the “clouds of heaven.” In verse 30, we see the sign of the Son of man, who is in heaven. This is His judicial act against Jerusalem, and He sends out His messengers all over the Gentile world (v. 31). Remember to consider Daniel 7:13. The one like the Son of Man comes on the clouds of heaven into the heavenly courts. This is not a coming to earth — it is not referring to what we call the Second Coming, but rather to the Ascension.
We must also learn the lesson of the fig tree. Within one generation, Jesus says that these signs will bud, and the summer (not winter) would be near. He reinforces His words with a strong word–heaven and earth might fold, but His words, never. And everything He said came to the pass, within the course of one generation. Far from being an embarrassingly false prediction, this chapter is one of the great means of authenticating Christ as a true prophet of God. Of course, He was much more than this, and so we must bow down and worship Him.
And last, I “wish we’d all been ready.” What is the meaning of “one is taken and the other left.” This is commonly thought to refer to the rapture–one taken up into heaven, and the other left on earth to kick himself for not praying the prayer when he had a chance. On the bright side, there are a lot of free, unmanned cars available. But look at Luke 17:35-37. The one who is taken is taken off to judgment. The one who is left is spared. This is not about the rapture at all. From verse 36 to the end of the chapter, we have an ethical exhortation based upon the temptations which result when the end is farther away than fifteen minutes.