Summary: Jesus' answer to a two- or three-pronged question revisited.
THE SECOND COMING
I have been looking anew into Matthew 24, trying to view the passage without the prejudices of popular opinion. It has been quite a humbling exercise.
There are aspects of every reasonable point of view about the second coming of Jesus which do bear scrutiny. But there is also much taught on this subject, even by otherwise sound teachers, that is nothing other than the doctrines and teaching of men.
It is with some trepidation that I hope to share my latest thoughts on this challenging passage. I have not got the final answers. I doubt whether anyone really has. When Jesus returns, many of our pet theories will be proved mistaken. The same thing, remember, happened at His first coming.
1. THE QUESTION
The disciples enthusiastically pointed out the wonderful buildings that made up the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus was less excited: "See ye not all these things? verily I say unto you, There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down" (Matthew 24:2).
Afterwards, in their rest place upon the Mount of Olives, the disciples asked their two- or three-pronged question: "Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?" (Matthew 24:3). It is well to bear in mind that upon this question hinges the whole interpretation of Jesus' teaching in this chapter.
2. THE QUESTION UNPACKED
For the Lord's perplexed disciples, the destruction of the Temple could represent nothing less than the end of the world. In a way they were right: the things they knew would never be the same, and one day they would themselves be accused of "turning the world upside down."
Yet they knew better than to imagine the end of the world outside of the context of the establishment of Christ's kingdom. No doubt they still envisaged their Lord establishing His Messiah-ship imminently, and in the manner that the excited crowds had anticipated when they welcomed Him into Jerusalem with their loud "Hosannas" (Matthew 21:8-9).
Surely now the outsiders would be driven out of Israel, and the nation would again possess her historic God-given borders in peace, free from molestation? It is a hope that lives on, both amongst the Jews, and throughout the Christian world.
3. TAKE HEED THAT NO MAN DECEIVE YOU
The first thing that Jesus said in answer to the disciples' question was: "Take heed that no man deceive you" (Matthew 24:4).
A more timely caution I cannot imagine. False sects and false Messiahs have abounded from that day to this. There is also much taught in the churches and outside them which give an un-Biblical spin on Jesus' teaching in this chapter. It was established Judaism which found it hardest to accept that Messiah was come, but first to die on our behalf; and it is established Christianity today which casts much doubt and confusion on the doctrine of the second coming of Christ.
There are some who question the literalness of Jesus' physical return to this earth. Others dress the Biblical facts in so many popular man-made doctrines that the reality is cast into disrepute. Some even have the audacity to imagine that they can tell us the answer as to "when shall these things be?" This question was clearly answered by Jesus in Matthew 24:36: "of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no not the angels of heaven, but my Father only."
4. THE INCENTIVE TO PREACH
There is much about the fulfilment of Jesus' prophecy of the destruction of the Temple that prefigures the state of things as they shall be at His return. False Christs; wars and rumours of wars; famine, pestilence, and earthquakes; persecution, and betrayal - all shall abound. There shall be a general indifference to the truth; "just as in the days of Noah" (Matthew 24:37).
This is hardly a picture of universal peace upon earth prior to His coming, as I had once imagined. Indeed, the incentive to preach the gospel to all nations is not found in the hope of a worldwide revival, but rather in the simple fact that "this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come" (Matthew 24:14).
When shall the end come? The end shall come when the gospel has been preached to all nations. Well, the gospel has been preached, and is being preached, and will be preached - whether men will accept it or not. In the mean time it is for us to persevere, for "he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved" (Matthew 24:13).
5. THE FALL OF JERUSALEM
Forty years after Jesus' prophecy in Matthew 24, Jerusalem was sacked, and her people scattered to the nations. Not for the first time, the "abomination of desolation" was seen in the Temple (Matthew 24:15). In the days of the Maccabees, Antiochus Epiphanes, the successor to part of the Empire of Alexander the Great, had set up an image of himself in that holy place. Now again the "holy place" would be desecrated in the presence of the Roman Eagle.