Return Of The King (Part 1)
Return Of The King (Part 1)312
Return Of The King (Part 1)
Main Idea: Jesus' prophecies concerning the destruction of Jerusalem and His second coming are a call for His disciples to trust in His authority, persevere in His power, and long for His return.
- Trust in the Authority of Christ.
- Understanding the text
- Prophecy concerning the destruction of Jerusalem
- Prophecy concerning the return of Jesus
- Applying the text
- The things of this world are passing.
- The truth of His Word is permanent.
- Understanding the text
- Persevere in the Power of Christ.
- Followers of Jesus will face deception.
- Followers of Jesus will face tribulation.
- Christians are not saved from trials.
- Christians are saved through trials.
- Followers of Jesus will face temptation.
- Followers of Jesus will face persecution.
- Persecution inevitably follows kingdom proclamation.
- Proclamation ultimately results in kingdom consummation.
- Long for the Coming of Christ.
- He came the first time lying in a manger; He will come the second time riding on the clouds.
- He came the first time in humility to provide salvation; He will come the second time in glory to execute judgment.
- Christians confidently watch: His timing will confound our wisdom.
- Christians patiently wait: His return will exceed our expectations.
- Christians urgently work: His church (our lives!) will accomplish His mission.313
It seems that everyone wants to know the future. I still recall the first time I went to Jackson Square in the French Quarter of New Orleans. This area was littered with fortune-tellers and tarot card readers, as well as tourists who seemed eager to find out their futures from these street vendors. As first-semester seminary students, it didn't take long for my friends and me to seize upon this opportunity for very different purposes, as we had a different view of the future that people desperately needed to hear about. We decided that we wanted in on the action, so we plopped down right beside the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans.
We told people (free of charge!) that their future didn't look good, but that it could change based on who Christ is and what He had done for them. It didn't take long to realize that that's not what people were looking for when they sat down in front of us. Most people were looking for details about their lives: Were they going to be married? Were they going to stay married? Would they have children? Would they get rich? Would they get sick? Would they experience some sort of tragedy? How successful would they be? Strangely, most people wanted to talk about some specifics of their more immediate future, but they had no interest in talking about their eternal destinies. They didn't want to hear about what mattered most.
Missing what matters most is not only a danger for tourists looking to fortune-tellers in Jackson Square; it's also a reality for followers of Christ who know and love God's Word. As we approach one of the most controversial chapters in the New Testament, a chapter where Jesus foretells the future and talks about the end of the world, there's a danger that we will miss truths that affect our eternity because we are caught up in trying to discern details that may or may not be answered in the text. Christians continue to mine Matthew 24, sometimes referred to as The Olivet Discourse,53 for various details about the future, including the timing of certain events. Some have even predicted the exact date of Jesus' return and the end of the world, only to look ridiculous later when these things didn't come to pass. But it's not just lunatics who debate these issues, for these are important realities that Scripture addresses. Solid, Bible-believing Christians and scholars debate the various details of Matthew 24, including whether or not this text supports314 premillennialism, postmillennialism, or amillennialism.54 In addition, there's the issue of the rapture: does Matthew 24 support a pre-, post-, or mid-tribulation rapture?55 Or is there a rapture at all? Again, these are critical questions that deserve our serious study and attention. However, if we're not careful, we will miss what is most important in this text.
Amid all the minor questions that arise in Matthew 24, there are major questions that must be answered in the lives of every one of us. So regardless of the details about when or how or where this or that thing is going to happen in the future, ask yourself the following questions: Are you ready for whatever may happen in your life this week or in the next year? Are you prepared for what may happen in the world in the next ten years? And are you absolutely certain of where your life will be in eternity? There are no more important questions than these. Jesus' primary goal in Matthew 24 is not to answer our questions about every single detail of the end times, but rather to prepare us for whatever the future may hold—this week, this month, this year, the next ten years, and even the next ten billion years from now. Followers of Christ have something, or rather Someone, to bank their future on.
Based on this controversial, oftentimes confusing text, there are three clear words of encouragement for your life and your future: trust in the authority of Christ, persevere in the power of Christ, and long for the coming of Christ.
Trust in the Authority of Christ
Seeing the big picture of this passage and understanding how this text is arranged should give us a greater appreciation for Christ's sovereign315 control of the future. There are two main prophecies that Jesus is addressing here, and these prophecies deal with two main events. It's important, therefore, in understanding the text to distinguish when Jesus is talking about what. Admittedly, not all scholars agree on the distinctions made below, but the majority of scholars do see a clear distinction in this chapter between two primary events being prophesied.
The first prophecy in this passage is a prophecy concerning the destruction of Jerusalem. This is what Jesus begins talking about in verse 15; however, to set the scene, we need to go back to verse 2, where Jesus foretells the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. While seated on the Mount of Olives, His disciples asked Jesus two questions privately, the first of which was, "Tell us, when will these things happen?" (v. 3). In reply, Jesus begins talking about true and false signs pointing to Jerusalem's destruction in verses 4-14. Then in verse 15 He says, "So when you see the abomination that causes desolation, spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains!" This "abomination that causes desolation" is a sign that Jerusalem is right on the verge of being destroyed. And then in verse 21 Jesus says of that time period, "For at that time there will be great tribulation, the kind that hasn't taken place from the beginning of the world until now and never will again!" This reference in verse 21 is still to the destruction of the city of Jerusalem, and the temple in the middle of it.
When Matthew talks about "the abomination that causes desolation" in Daniel's prophecy, he is likely referring to several texts, including Daniel 8:13; 9:27; 11:31; and 12:11. Centuries prior to Christ's coming, the prophet Daniel foretold a time when a foreign ruler would come into the temple and profane it. Most Jewish people linked that prophecy with something that happened around 168 BC, when a ruler named Antiochus Epiphanes came into the temple and erected a pagan altar. He even sacrificed pigs on it, thus defiling the house of God (France, The Gospel of Matthew, 911). But Jesus seems to be saying that that event, which would have been blasphemous and detestable in the eyes of the Jews, was only a foretaste of what will happen when Jerusalem is destroyed.
Approximately 40 years after Jesus spoke these words, around AD 70, Roman armies began surrounding the city of Jerusalem to overtake it. And when they did take the city, the Roman army destroyed the temple and made sacrifices to false gods, declaring Titus, the Roman316 emperor, to be supreme. Daniel 12:1 refers to a time like this: "There will be a time of distress such as never has occurred since nations came into being until that time." This is the same language that's used in Matthew 24:21.
The time of Jerusalem's destruction in AD 70 was a horrifying, ghastly time. It was a virtual bloodbath of Jewish men and women who were pummeled by the Roman army. The Jewish historian Josephus described the savagery, slaughter, disease, and famine that marked the Jewish people during those years. Parents resorted to cannibalism with their own children and many Jews were taken into slavery. The death toll was in the millions. And all of this took place about 40 years after Jesus said these words to His disciples. It's little wonder that He tells them in verse 15 to flee when these things start taking place. They were told not even to go to their homes to get their clothes when the Roman army invaded. We begin to understand why Jesus spoke of "woe" to "pregnant women and nursing mothers," for if their flight were on the Sabbath, they couldn't take the necessary precautions, or if their flight were in winter, the frequent rains would cause the waters to rise, making it difficult to escape (v. 19).
The first prophecy in this chapter, then, concerns the destruction of Jerusalem. The temple would be obliterated, so that, as Jesus predicted, "Not one stone will be left here on another that will not be thrown down!" (v. 2). This happened in AD 70, and we'll see in the rest of this chapter how this figured in to Christ's second coming and the end of the age.
The second prophecy in this passage is described in verses 29-31, and this is a prophecy concerning the return of Jesus. Verse 29 speaks of the moon becoming dark and the "celestial powers," or the heavens, being shaken. Based on this language, it seems that verses 29-31 are about more than simply the destruction of Jerusalem. Jesus will come back in splendor and glory with a trumpet call from heaven. He will come to fully and finally assert His reign and His rule over the world as the sovereign Son of Man who deserves the praise of all peoples.
The difficulty then comes with understanding the rest of the passage, namely, how does it relate to the two prophecies mentioned above? There are two main schools of thought on how to interpret the remainder of this passage in verses 29-51, and both of these interpretations are possible (to be honest, I have gone back and forth between them).
The first option, the one that represents most scholars today, is that these two events—the destruction of Jerusalem and the return of317 Jesus—are intended to be seen like two progressive mountain peaks, one of which sets the stage for the other. The destruction of Jerusalem, according to this interpretation, foreshadows the coming of the Son of Man.
The second interpretive option is to see verses 4-28 as one prolonged description of distress and tribulation that will happen in the world before Christ's return. With this interpretation, verses 29-51 focus on Christ's climactic return, while the destruction of Jerusalem serves as one (albeit potent) example of the coming time of tribulation, an example that was especially pertinent for these Jewish disciples.
Regardless of which of these two interpretations you choose, two things are clear: (1) Jerusalem is going to be destroyed, and (2) Jesus is going to return. To the disciples, these were earth-shaking realities. But why are these truths so critical for those of us in the twenty-first century? In applying the text, there are a couple of extremely important realities that we must grasp.
First, the things of this world are passing. These country boys from Galilee came to the big city of Jerusalem, and they were stunned by its splendor, particularly the splendor of the temple (v. 1). Of course, the disciples had reason to be impressed, as the temple was a massive and awe-inspiring edifice. It was built with large stones, some of which measured 40 feet long, 12 feet wide, and 12 feet deep. These stones could weigh more than 200,000 pounds each and they were stacked on top of one another—quite impressive for a day in which there was no advanced construction equipment! The massive, stacked stones led up to a roof bathed in a sea of gold. The white marble on the top of the temple would virtually blind you when you looked at it in the reflection of the sun. You can understand the shock of the disciples, therefore, when Jesus told them that not one stone would be left upon another (v. 2). The things of this world—even the best, most incredible things of this world—are passing. Jesus says as much in the first part of verse 35: "Heaven and earth will pass away."
The second reality that springs from this text has to do with the last part of verse 35. Although heaven and earth will pass away, Jesus says, "My words will never pass away." The truth of His Word is permanent. Regardless of how we interpret some of the details in this text, there's no denying that Jesus accurately predicted the destruction of Jerusalem approximately 40 years before it happened. He is not some sham fortune-teller offering His opinion; He is the Lord of history, and He speaks with authority about the future. Jesus not only knows the future,318 but He ordains it. Jesus spoke about the destruction of Jerusalem, and it happened. He also spoke about His return one day, and that too will happen. The question is, "Will you be ready for that day?" You may be wondering what it means to be ready. This question leads to the second exhortation based on this text.
Persevere in the Power of Christ
This prophetic text leads us not only to trust in the authority of Christ, but also to persevere in the power of Christ. Jesus was preparing His disciples at that time for Jerusalem's destruction, and simultaneously He is preparing disciples in all times for His return. Though different challenges have come about throughout history, Jesus calls all of His followers to persevere. This is one reason the emphasis on date-setting is misguided in interpreting this chapter. After all, Jesus said in verse 36, "Now concerning that day and hour no one knows—neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son—except the Father only." That's a pretty remarkable statement from the lips of the Son of God. If this text leads us only to speculation, then we have missed the point.
Jesus intends His followers to walk away from this text prepared for what is sure to come before His return. In this chapter there are at least four things that we will face as we wait for Jesus' coming. First, followers of Jesus will face deception. Jesus says in verses 4-5, "Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name, saying, 'I am the Messiah,' and they will deceive many." He says essentially the same thing in verses 23-26, warning of those who will say, "Look, here is the Messiah!" (v. 23). This is what Jesus' followers are to expect: "False messiahs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders to lead astray, if possible, even the elect" (v. 24). When we see and hear such things, our instructions are clear: "do not believe it" (v. 26). Individuals like Jim Jones, David Koresh, and other blatantly false teachers typically come to mind when we hear such warnings, but deception can be much more subtle. Many people promote a picture or a version of Jesus that is not found in the Bible, and they continue to deceive scores of Christians.
Second, as we wait for Christ's return, followers of Jesus will face tribulation. Whether in the first century or in the twenty-first century, life will not be easy for those who bear witness to the Lord Jesus Christ. In verses 6-8 Jesus speaks of the "beginning of birth pains" (v. 8), which will319 include "wars and rumors of wars," as well as "famines and earthquakes in various places" (vv. 6-7). These things were familiar to first-century Christians, and they are certainly familiar to us today. We hear of wars and rumors of wars across the Middle East, escalating tensions between Israel and Iran, and nuclear threats from North Korea. The daily news is also littered with reports of famine in parts of Africa, where hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children have starved and are starving. Earthquakes, cyclones, flooding, and tsunamis have taken countless lives in a matter of minutes. Needless to say, we are not immune to tribulation in this world, not one of us. And Jesus tells us to expect these things, not so that we can pinpoint a date for His coming based on one particular event, but so that we will be reminded about how to live and what to prepare for in this fallen world before He returns.
Astoundingly, in light of the terrifying events mentioned in this chapter, Jesus tells us not to fear: "See that you are not alarmed, because these things must take place, but the end is not yet" (v. 6). Your hope as a follower of Christ should not come and go based on political trends or potential disasters; these things are not to alarm you. We're reminded of Paul's reference to the "labor pains" of creation, for even creation is waiting to be "set free from the bondage of corruption into the glorious freedom of God's children" (Rom 8:21). Remember, Christians are not saved from trials; Scripture is very clear on this. Rather, Christians are saved through trials.56 Jesus is saying, in effect, "Trust in Me. Even when it seems that everything is out of control, I am in control." With such confidence in Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can persevere through tribulation and deception.
Third, followers of Jesus will face temptation. In verse 10 Jesus says that many will "take offense, betray one another and hate one another." The increase in lawlessness will cause "the love of many to grow cold" (v. 12). Followers of Christ will be tempted not to trust in God, but instead to trust in themselves. Those who we thought were believers—people who were identified with the church—will turn away, and we will be tempted to do the same.
Fourth and finally, followers of Jesus will face persecution. Jesus warns us in verse 9, "They will hand you over for persecution, and they will kill you. You will be hated by all nations because of My name."320 You will experience suffering because you bear the name of Christ, so don't be surprised at the world's opposition. Persevere, for "the one who endures to the end will be delivered" (v. 13). As we persevere, we do so with the promise of Christ's power and presence, for He tells us at the end of Matthew's Gospel, "I am with you always, to the end of the age" (28:20).
As we persevere, we do so proclaiming this gospel of the kingdom. Matthew 24:14—a verse George Ladd once called "perhaps the most important single verse in the Word of God for God's people today" (Ladd, The Gospel of the Kingdom, 123)—says the following: "This good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed in all the world as a testimony to all nations. And then the end will come." Jesus has just given us a long list of things that will happen that are not necessarily signs of the end; they're just birth pains leading to the end. The end will come when the gospel has been proclaimed as a testimony to all nations. This is why we long to make the gospel known to every people group in the world. These truths about worldwide proclamation set the stage for the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20, where Jesus gives that foundational command to the church to "make disciples of all nations" (v. 19). But this glorious task will not be easy.
While the gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed to all nations, persecution inevitably follows kingdom proclamation. If you give your life to proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom in your workplace or somewhere across the world, life will get harder for you, not easier. If you want to live a nice, comfortable, safe Christian life, then don't share the gospel. Of course, that's not an option if we love Jesus and want to be faithful to Him! We make Him known, regardless of the cost, because His reward is worth it.
One of the reasons we can rejoice in making the gospel known is because proclamation ultimately results in kingdom consummation. Jesus will return and consummate His kingdom when this mission is accomplished. The accomplishment of this mission will happen when every nation, that is, every group of people on the planet, has been reached with the gospel. This is what we give our lives and resources to. Christians often ask, "How will you know when all the nations have been reached with the gospel of the kingdom?" I can't improve on Ladd's response:
God alone knows the definition of terms [here]. I cannot precisely define who all the nations are, but I do not need to know. I know only one thing: Christ has not yet returned;321 therefore, the task is not yet done. When it is done, Christ will come. Our responsibility is not to insist on defining the terms; our responsibility is to complete the task. So long as Christ does not return, our work is undone. Let us get busy and complete our mission. (Ladd, The Gospel of the Kingdom, 137)
May God help us to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom throughout the world as we persevere in this world in the power of the King.
Long for the Coming of Christ
We've already seen in Matthew 24 that we are to trust in the authority of Christ and persevere in the power of Christ. Now, based on what we see in this chapter and the portrait of Christ we see throughout Matthew's Gospel, we should long for the coming of Christ. The realities of tribulation, deception, temptation, and persecution create anticipation. The more we live in this world, the more we will long for Christ to come back to this world.
This text leaves no doubt that the day of Christ's return will be evident to all. His coming will be no secret: the angels of heaven will let out a trumpet blast, and every eye will behold the Son of Man in the sky (vv. 29-31). How different this will be from His first coming! The first time He came to a remote, obscure town just outside Jerusalem, where He went largely unnoticed, save for a few shepherds and some farm animals. He came the first time lying in a manger; however, He will come the second time riding on the clouds. This is what Daniel prophesied centuries before:
And I saw One like a son of man
coming with the clouds of heaven.
He approached the Ancient of Days
and was escorted before Him.
He was given authority to rule,
and glory, and a kingdom;
so that those of every people,
nation, and language
should serve Him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that will not pass away,322
and His kingdom is one
that will not be destroyed. (Dan 7:13-14)
Just as surely as He came the first time in humility to provide salvation, so He will come the second time in glory to execute judgment. Matthew's reference to "the clouds of heaven" in verse 30 is not just an allusion to Daniel 7. Throughout the Old Testament, God reveals His glory in the image of a cloud. It was a pillar of cloud that led God's people in the exodus from Egypt (Exod 13:21). Then, at the end of the book of Exodus, God's glory was revealed in a cloud that covered the tabernacle (Exod 40:34-38). Psalm 104:3 says that God makes the clouds "His chariot," and Isaiah 19:1 depicts the Lord riding on a "swift cloud." The picture we get in Matthew 24 is of the glory of God revealed in the glorious Son of God, who will come on the clouds in power to execute judgment.
In verse 30 Jesus says that the tribes of the earth will "mourn" when they see Him coming. That day will be a day of judgment, and all who are not ready for that day—that is, those who have refused to turn from their sin and to trust in Christ as Savior and King—will come face to face with the Holy One whom they have rejected.
This text should cause us to ask ourselves, "What if this happened today? Would I be ready?" If not, then repent and believe in Christ today.
If you are a genuine follower of Christ, are there things in your life that you still need to repent of, sins that you're holding on to and toying with? What are you doing today that would cause you to be ashamed before Jesus if He were to come this moment? If so, let go of these things. Confess your sin and find mercy in Your Savior, so that you will be ready for His coming.
Following Jesus' description of His second coming in verses 29-31, He tells the parable of the fig tree in verses 32-33. The lesson of this parable is that Christians confidently watch, for they see the leaves on the tree (the signs Jesus has spoken of) indicating that the Lord's return is near. In a very real sense, we keep our eyes on the sky and our hearts prepared, even though we don't know the exact timing of His coming. Yet we know that His timing will confound our wisdom. When the Son returns, we will see that the Father's timing makes perfect sense, so we watch with confidence in the sovereign control of God.
While we watch, Christians patiently wait. In verse 34, Jesus says, "I assure you: This generation will certainly not pass away until all these things take place." This verse has been particularly confusing, because it323 seems that Jesus is saying that the generation He was speaking to would see His second coming. There's much discussion over what is meant by terms like "generation," "pass away," and "all these things." Good scholars have reached different conclusions. It seems clear, however, that Jesus did not mean that He would return before His disciples died. After all, He explicitly told Peter in John 21:18-19 that Peter would be put to death. Matthew 24:34 seems to teach that all of the things that Jesus has talked about—tribulation, deception, temptation, and persecution—would come upon His disciples, and that others in that generation would see the destruction of Jerusalem as a foretaste of the return of Jesus. But those things would not be the end. In the midst of these signs, from generation to generation, followers of Christ are called to wait patiently.
As we wait for the coming of our glorious King, we know for certain that He is coming back and that today we are closer to His return than we were yesterday. And when He comes, His return will exceed our expectations. We've all been hopeful for some thing or some anticipated event, waiting eagerly to experience it, only to be deeply disappointed when it didn't meet our expectations. It will not be so with the second coming of Christ. Our words are inadequate to describe the glory of what that scene will be like, as well as all that will unfold in the days to come after that. In The Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis gives us a rich, imaginative picture of what that eternal state will be like. He ends the last book in the series like this:
As Aslan spoke, he no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.
For believers, the return of Christ and the end of this world will be the beginning of a new heaven and a new earth (Rev 21-22). While waiting and watching confidently, Christians urgently work. We fight deception and temptation, we persevere through tribulation, and we324 endure persecution as we proclaim the gospel of the kingdom throughout the whole world. We do this in full dependence on God, as we pray, "Your kingdom come" (Matt 6:10). This is what we give our time and resources to. We spend our lives, even lose them, if necessary, knowing Christ's power will ensure that His church (our lives!) will accomplish His mission.
Reflect and Discuss
- What differentiates unhelpful speculation from a sincere desire to understand our future hope?
- Summarize the overarching point of Matthew 24:1-36 in one or two sentences.
- What factors make it difficult to determine the timing and the relationship between the destruction of Jerusalem and Jesus' second coming?
- How should we respond to those who take a different view of prophecies such as those we read in Matthew 24?
- Explain how this passage points us away from sinful, short-term pleasures.
- How does this text speak to the authority and divinity of Jesus Christ?
- What kind of treatment should believers expect as they await Christ's return?
- What does it look like for followers of Christ to be eagerly watching for Jesus and urgently working for His kingdom purposes?
- As it concerns Jesus' return, which truths in this passage should discourage us from date-setting or from making rash judgments based on current events?
- How should the second coming of Christ inform our witness in the world?
This title comes from the fact that Jesus spoke these words while seated with His disciples on the Mount of Olives (Matt 24:3).
The term "millennium" comes from the references in Revelation 20 to the period of 1,000 years during which Satan will be bound. There are three main schools of thought, with variations in each position: Premillennialists believe Christ's return will precede the millennium, Postmillennialists believe that Jesus' return will happen after the millennium, and Amillennialists believe that the millennium is a reference to the present age, which began following Christ's resurrection and ascension. There is also considerable debate about whether the millennium is a reference to a literal 1,000 years.
The term "rapture" refers to Christ's coming in the air to rescue His church prior to the millennium and the final judgment mentioned in Rev 20:11-15. Only believers will meet the Lord in the air and be raptured. In support of this view, commentators point to passages such as 1 Thess 4:13-18. Pre-tribulationists believe this rapture will occur prior to a period of "great tribulation" mentioned in Matt 24:21-31 and elsewhere, while post-tribulationists believe the rapture will occur after the tribulation. Mid-tribulationists believe the rapture will occur at the midpoint of the tribulation (after 3½ years).
For just a few scriptural examples, see: Matt 5:11-12; John 16:33; Rom 8:17; 2 Tim 3:12; Jas 1:2; 1 Pet 4:12-14.