Right now it appears the world stage is set. Just look at the things Jesus predicted in Matthew 24:
- False Christs
- Rumors of wars
- Nation rising against nation
Now, what do you see in the headlines today?
- Rumors of wars
- Natural disasters
And yet, when Jesus described these things on the Mount of Olives, He said they are only the beginnings of sorrows. People are wondering: Is this it? Is this the end? Has the countdown begun? Where on the prophetic calendar are we? Jesus begins this discourse with, “Take heed that no one deceives you.” And if you’re looking at today’s news headlines and comparing them to what Jesus predicted in Matthew 24, you have been deceived. The wars and famines going on right now have nothing to do with what Jesus said in Matthew 24. But you won’t be deceived anymore! Because in this article, we are going to find four keys to unlocking Matthew 24. And the third one is so clear, you may wonder how you have missed it in the past. Once you see it, you won’t be able to unsee it. Beware: If you get this wrong, as we will see later, you might turn Jesus into a liar.
In Matthew 24, which is often referred to as the Olivet Discourse, Jesus predicts many things, many things which many people have used to try to predict the end of the world.1 In the Olivet Discourse, the Lord gives signs and warnings that we would do well to pay attention to.
If you’ve never read all of Matthew 24 in one sitting, I recommend you do so now. And while you’re at it, include all of chapters 21 through 26 with it. Yes, I know that’s a lot of text to read. I assure you: it’s worth it, because that’s the first key to unlocking Matthew 24:
Read it in context.
That’s the key to understanding any passage of Scripture, isn’t it? When I misunderstand a passage, more often than not, it’s because I have not considered the context. Let’s break this key down into two sections: The historical context and the textual context.
If we include all of Matthew 21 through 26 in our reading, we will know not only where in the world this passage took place, but also where in time it took place. Jesus is in Jerusalem a couple of days before Passover, and not just any Passover, but the Passover before His death (26:1–2). In just a couple of nights after Matthew 24, Judas was going to betray Jesus, leading to the Lord’s crucifixion. Jesus had entered the city publicly with His triumphant entry and had been performing signs and teaching both in the temple and throughout the city. This public display and teaching accomplished many things, including giving the city one last chance to repent while their Messiah was with them. When He finished His public teaching, He said—now, don’t skip through this reading. Stick with this point. I know you’re looking forward to breaking down Jesus’ predictions in Matthew 24, but understanding this context is crucial—Jesus said to those in Jerusalem:
Therefore, indeed, I send you prophets, wise men, and scribes: some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from city to city, that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Assuredly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! See! Your house is left to you desolate; for I say to you, you shall see Me no more till you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’”Matthew 23:34–39
So, we have the historical context. Why is that important? The city was about to be destroyed. That’s right. The most important city in history was about to be destroyed…again. In times past, God had sent prophets to His people dwelling in this city—prophets like Jeremiah—to warn of the impending doom if the people of God did not repent. Instead of repenting, they tried killing the prophets, and sometimes they succeeded.
A couple of days prior, Jesus “saw the city and wept over it, saying,
If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side, and level you, and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation.Luke 19:41–44
In the past, when the people of Israel had ignored their prophets, God allowed other kingdoms, like Assyria and Babylon, to arrive and enslave and kill the people of God and destroy their cities. This time, not only was Jerusalem rejecting a prophet, but they were also rejecting their Messiah. Destruction was again coming to Jerusalem, and it was their own fault. Jesus knew and wept over the fact that in about forty years, Rome was going to sack this city.
In AD 70, the Roman Empire, led by General Titus, laid siege to the city, eventually breaching its walls. Chaos ensued as the Romans mercilessly sacked and burned Jerusalem. The iconic temple, the one where Jesus had spent His last week teaching, was reduced to ruins. Countless lives were lost, with survivors facing enslavement or forced exile. Records of priesthoods and genealogies were lost, leaving a permanent mark on the collective memory of a nation and religion. Judaism would be forever changed.
Again, we ask, why is this important to understanding Matthew 24? The first few verses of the chapter will tell us:
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.” Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?”Matthew 24:1–3
Pay attention to most people’s explanation of Matthew 24. Rarely do preachers or teachers include verses 1 and 2, much less chapters 21 through 26. This leads to our second key to unlocking Matthew 24:
Realize Jesus is answering two different questions.
Leaving the temple, the disciples couldn’t help but remark to Jesus about how beautiful it was. They were not alone when enamored by the beauty of its buildings. Philo says the temple was “beautiful beyond all possible description.”2 Josephus, a Jewish historian of the time, described its shell of gold that “wanted nothing that was likely to surprise either men’s minds or their eyes.”3 Despite its beauty, despite the human accomplishment, Jesus predicted that not a single one of its stones would be left on top of another. The disciples couldn’t understand how the temple could be destroyed and it not coincide with the end of the world. In their minds, the end of the temple meant the end of humanity. So, when they asked when it would happen, they also asked about signs of the end of the world. Even if the disciples linked the destruction of the temple with the end of the world, Jesus addresses their query as two different questions:
- When will these things be?
- What will be the sign of Your coming, and the end of the age?
Therefore, our third key to unlocking the Olivet Discourse is:
Know when Jesus is answering which question.
This is the key that many people miss, but when they see it, they wonder how they never noticed it before. Are you ready, as this may change everything you thought you knew about Matthew 24?
Jesus answers these two questions in order. He gives subtle, but intentional, ways to know when He is answering each question. For example, Jesus begins His response with, “Do you not see all these things?” (v. 2). This is in direct relation to the disciples’ first question: “When will these things be?” Jesus spends verses 4–35 addressing this first question about the destruction of the temple. Then, He switches language when He begins to answer their second question about the end of the world. He says, “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven” (v. 36). When describing signs, days, and things (plural), He is describing the destruction of Jerusalem. When discussing day and hour (singular), He is explaining the final judgment and the end of the world.
Notice further contrasts in Jesus’ language between the two sections.
- For the destruction of the temple, He uses words like, you, days, knowledge, soon, and signs. He describes or gives instructions for strange times, warnings, running away, and events that affect only Judea.
- For the end of the world, He uses words like, day, no one knows, and delay. He describes or gives instructions for normal times, no signs or warnings, no time to flee, and events that affect all nations.
The trouble these days is so many preachers and teachers ignore these distinctions, and they try to fit this entire discourse into one box. That is, they believe and teach Jesus is spending this entire time talking about the end of the world. But He isn’t.
Jesus knew what was going to happen to this city, and His heart ached. He didn’t want His disciples to be destroyed with it, so in the first part of this chapter, He gave them detailed signs to look out for—not for the end of the world, but for the end of the city. As soon as they witnessed it unfolding, He told them that if they were in Judea, they should flee to the mountains. Tell me: If Jesus really were describing the end of the world, why would it only affect those in Judea? And why would fleeing to the mountains make any difference? Jesus also instructs:
Let him who is on the housetop not go down to take anything out of his house. And let him who is in the field not go back to get his clothes. But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! And pray that your flight may not be in winter or on the Sabbath.Matthew 24:17–20
Again, why would any of this make sense if Jesus is describing the end of the world? But if He is talking about the destruction of the temple and the city, it makes perfect sense. The mountains are frigid during winter, and the gates of the city would be closed on the Sabbath. Those things would hinder someone literally fleeing from a Roman army, especially someone who is pregnant or caring for infants. Jesus gave all these signs so His disciples would not be deceived when false prophets and Christs arose. He gave specific signs about what would happen to the temple so they didn’t assume that just any war or even rumors of wars were going to lead to the end of that era and temple. They needed to know exactly when Rome was going to sack the city so they could be safe.
It’s interesting to me that those who teach falsely on this passage often focus on this part of the discourse: “For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places” (v. 7). If these were signs of the final judgment and end of the world, they wouldn’t be very helpful, as these are things every single generation could find in the headlines. That’s why every person who has ever used this passage of Scripture as some so-called prophetic calendar to predict the end of the world has always and will always fail. Jesus doesn’t want us to be deceived, and He didn’t want His disciples in the first century to be deceived. That’s why He said regarding these events, “all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet”—the end of the temple and the city (v. 6). These were not even specific signs for the destruction of Jerusalem. Only after these events took place in their generation would the singular specific sign for them come to pass:
the “abomination of desolation,” spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy placeMatthew 24:15
The destruction of Jerusalem and the things committed in the temple before it was torn down are described in graphic detail in the history books. I will not describe them here, but I will quote one Jew who witnessed it. He said:
Certainly, it had been good for me to die before I had seen the house of God full of so many abominations, or these sacred places that ought not to be trodden upon at random, filled with the feet of these blood-shedding villains.Josephus (Wars 4:3:10)
That abomination led to the city’s desolation just as Daniel had prophesied. When that happened, it was time for the disciples of Jesus to flee Judea. Don’t let anyone try to convince you that we’re still waiting for the abomination of desolation. Jesus had warned His disciples, “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near” (Luke 21:20), and He guaranteed, “this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place” (v. 34). All things Jesus specified in this chapter happened exactly how He described, and they happened before or on AD 70 when the Roman army besieged the city. When the army arrived, it was time. This was not something we in the twenty-first century are to be looking for. Jesus directly connected the siege of Jerusalem with Daniel’s prophecy of the abomination of desolation. Jesus gave that prophecy to His first-century disciples, and it was fulfilled as Jesus perfectly and accurately predicted. The temple was filled with abominations. The city was left desolate. The below list compares what Jesus predicted and how both secular and biblical history recount how each of Jesus’ prophecies was fulfilled before or while the army sacked the city.
- Destruction of the temple (v. 2)—Micah 3:12; Josephus, Wars 7:1:1
- False Christs (v. 24)—Josephus, Wars 2:13:5; Antiquities 20:5:1
- Wars and rumors of wars (v. 6)—Josephus, Wars 2:18:1; Tacitus, The Histories 1:2
- Famines (v. 7)—Acts 11:27-28; Josephus, Antiquities 20:2:5
- Earthquakes (v. 7)—Acts 16:26; Tacitus, The Annals 12:43
- Persecutions (v. 9)—Acts 7-9
- Gospel preached to the world (v. 14)—Romans 10:16-18; Colossians 1:23; 1 Thessalonians 1:7-8; Acts 8:1-4
- Abomination of desolation (v. 15)—Luke 21:20; Josephus, Wars 4:3:10; Wars 4:9:1-2; 5:12:2
Remember, Jesus, looking at the temple asked them, ”Do you not see all these things?” (v. 2). They responded, “when will these things be?” (v. 3). In verse 6, Jesus said, “And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.” And then He finished His predictions about the destruction of the city with, “So you also, when you see all these things, know that it is near—at the doors! Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away” (vv. 33–35). He’s using this language for a reason.
We can understand that further when we notice that He begins the next section with a huge contrast: “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only” (v. 36). I believe Jesus knows what He’s talking about. He spends the first 35 verses speaking of days—the days of Jerusalem’s siege and destruction. There’s no confusion then when we realize He shifts his attention to the second question in verse 36 with, “But of that day [singular] and hour [singular] no one knows…” Yet if I do what many folks today are doing, that is, try to make all of this discourse about the end of the world, then Jesus must be confused.
On the final day, God will deal out, not just judgment of the first century generation that rejected Jesus, but of every generation from all nations. He teaches three parables (the Ten Virgins, the Talents, and the Great Royal Shepherd) to give this warning: “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (25:13). He describes it like the coming of a thief (24:43). A thief does not warn his victims or gives them signs of when he will break in, neither will God give specific signs for the day of judgment. On that day, “All the nations will be gathered before Him [not just the city of Jerusalem], and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats” (25:32). All people will be judged and sentenced to either everlasting punishment or eternal life (25:46).
Before we get to the fourth key to understanding this passage, let’s remember the first three
- We must read this passage in context.
- We should realize Jesus is answering two different questions.
- And it doesn’t take much to know when Jesus is answering which question.
In the first 35 verses, Jesus is dealing strictly with the destruction of Jerusalem. And He concludes to His disciples in the first century that it would all come to pass before their generation passed away. For the rest of the chapter, and all of chapter 25, Jesus is dealing with His coming for eternal judgment and the end of the world—“Not so fast!” someone says. “What about the end-of-the-world-like language in verses 29–30? How do you explain those verses if that has to do with the destruction of Jerusalem?” Great question! In those verses, Jesus says:
Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, 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.Matthew 24:29–30
What’s this all about? I thought these days were the destruction of the city. What’s Jesus talking about when He says He’ll appear in the clouds, and the sun, moon, and stars will give signs? For many Bible students, these are perplexing questions, but to the diligent students of the Old Testament Scriptures, like Jesus’ immediate audience, this is where it would have all come together. Perhaps you and I view this language as end-of-the-world-like, but the Jews Jesus spoke to, and the ones Matthew wrote to, would have begun thinking of passages like Isaiah 13, Jeremiah 4, Ezekiel 32, Joel 3, Amos 8, and Nahum 1. All of these Old Testament passages (and several others) include this type of language, and yet they’re not dealing with the final judgment and end of the world. They’re dealing with judgment of an earthly nation and its rulers, and the end of an era. For example:
Behold, the day of the LORD comes, Cruel, with both wrath and fierce anger, To lay the land desolate; And He will destroy its sinners from it. For the stars of heaven and their constellations Will not give their light; The sun will be darkened in its going forth, And the moon will not cause its light to shine.Isaiah 13:9–10
Reading this passage in isolation, one may think it’s describing future judgment. But no, it has already happened! And it happened hundreds of years before Jesus. Verse 1 tells us that this was God’s proclamation against Babylon, which He overthrew by His power in judgment. In this type of literature, which is also very present in the book of Revelation, the sun, moon, and stars represent rulers of kingdoms. Jesus is not giving us instructions to compare the alignment of planets and constellations. Nor is He telling us to look for blood moons. He was telling His first century disciples that—although it’s hard for you to comprehend now—God has judgment to make on this entire city and its rulers. And if you’re paying attention, you’ll know when to flee to save yourself. Those who think they rule today are going to be cast down from their high seats, and great will be their fall! It will be as if the heavens are unravelling.
As the Lord through Ezekiel said to Pharaoh of Egypt, so Jesus was saying to Jerusalem:
When I put out your light, I will cover the heavens, and make its stars dark; I will cover the sun with a cloud, And the moon shall not give her light. All the bright lights of the heavens I will make dark over you, And bring darkness upon your land,” Says the Lord GOD.Ezekiel 32:7–8
The prophecies of Daniel 7 would be fulfilled—Jesus as the Son of Man would be recognized as the King of kings. His church would scatter and permeate every tribe, village, and city.
God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.Philippians 2:9–11
He has come in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. Therefore, the final key to unlocking the Olivet Discourse is:
Here’s the process of deception: A teacher or preacher tells you that you can compare Matthew 24 with the calendar, the constellations, and the news headlines to understand where we are on the so-called prophetic calendar. He “proves” his point by saying, “Look! Jesus predicted wars, rumors of wars, and pestilences. Look! The headlines talk about wars, rumors of wars, and pestilences.” So, you indeed look at isolated verses to “confirm” his teaching. You then depend on his “expertise” to interpret these signs moving forward, since he was the one to point them out to you in the beginning. If that sounds like your experience, I am so sorry someone has done that to you.
If you approach all of Matthew 21–26 with this presupposition, you’d have every reason to be confused. Jesus would look like a liar or a lunatic. What? Are we to believe He first predicts in detail the end of the world and warns the disciples what to do the moment they see these signs; He says they all must happen within this generation; and then He says, “I don’t even know when that’s going to happen; in fact, there will be no signs. It will come like a thief in the night”?
Jesus was not confused. He is not a liar. He’s not crazy. Now that you have the keys, you will not be deceived any longer. Moving forward, you’ll approach this passage in context, you’ll understand Jesus is answering two different questions, you’ll know when He’s answering each one, and you will trust Him to the very end.
Perhaps in this midst of all the discussion and deception, you’ve missed Jesus’ stronger point—the one that has applied to every disciple: “Take heed, watch and pray; for you do not know when the time is” (Mark 13:33). We must always be ready. We must always be watching. We must always be praying. He could come this moment. Do you believe that with all of your heart?
- This discourse is also described in Mark 13 and Luke 21, but since Matthew 24 provides the most details, Matthew 24 will be our primary focus in this lesson. ↩︎
- Philo (Special Laws 1.13): “Of this temple the outer circuit, being the most extensive both in length and width, was fortified by fortifications adorned in a most costly manner. And each of them is a double portico, built and adorned with the finest materials of wood and stone, and with abundant supplies of all kinds, and with the greatest skill of the workmen, and the most diligent care on the part of the superintendants. […] And in the centre was the temple itself, beautiful beyond all possible description.” ↩︎
- Josephus (Wars 5.5.6): “Now the outward face of the temple in its front wanted nothing that was likely to surprise either men’s minds or their eyes; for it was covered all over with plates of gold of great weight, and, at the first rising of the sun, reflected back a very fiery splendor, and made those who forced themselves to look upon it to turn their eyes away, just as they would have done at the sun’s own rays. But this temple appeared to strangers, when they were coming to it at a distance, like a mountain covered with snow; for as to those parts of it that were not gilt, they were exceeding white.” ↩︎