At the beginning of today’s passage we read that the Lord was walking away from the temple, when his disciples called his attention to its buildings. That is, to all the buildings which made up the temple complex. In Mark’s version of this passage, the disciples marvelled at the size of the temple. And it was a magnificent building; and it was so big and imposing that you might be tempted to think that it would last forever.
But the Lord said to his disciples that the time will come when not one stone of the temple will be left on another and every stone will be thrown down. He was foretelling how the temple would one day be destroyed. And the destruction would be so thorough that the temple would be completely flattened.
The next thing Matthew tells us is that the Lord was sitting on the Mount of Olives. So, he’s walked out of the temple and out of the city and he’s headed across to the Mount of Olives. And it seems that the disciples have been mulling over what he said about the temple, because once he sat down, they come to ask him about what he has said. They want to know: when will this happen and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age? And from what they ask him, it’s clear that in their mind the destruction of the temple would be such a momentous event that it would signal the end of the world. They can’t imagine a world without the temple. And so, if the temple is destroyed, it must be because we’ve reached the end of this age and the beginning of the age to come, when Christ will come in glory and with power to destroy his enemies and to deliver his people. So, when it this going to happen and what will be the sign that the end is near?
And in the following verses, the Lord answers them. His reply is difficult to interpret, because the Lord seems to be referring some of the time to the destruction of the temple which took place in AD70 when the Romans destroyed it. But then he also seems to be referring some of the time to the end of the age when he comes again. And then he also seems to be referring some of the time to events which take place before the end of the ange when he comes again.
When I preached on Mark’s version of this chapter, I referred to two interpretations of this passage. There are, of course, many more interpretations, but I only referred to two of them. And at that time, I favoured the interpretation which said that the Lord is referring to the destruction of the temple right up to when he says that heaven and earth will pass away, but his words will never pass away. That’s in verse 35 of Matthew 24 and verse 32 of Mark 13. And only after that point does he start to refer to his coming at the end of the age. One of the advantages of that interpretation is that it’s nice and neat. He’s talking about AD70 first and then he’s talking about his second coming.
And according to that interpretation, when the Lord says in verse 30 that the Son of Man will come on the clouds, he’s not referring to when he will come again at the end of the age to judge the living and the dead. He can’t be referring to that, because he goes on to say in verse 34 that the present generation — all the people he was talking to — will certainly not pass away until all of these things have taken place. In other words, they would all be alive to see these things. But the people he was speaking to have now died. So, he can’t be talking about his second coming, can he? He must be talking about something else, such as the destruction of the temple by the Romans in AD70.
At that time, according to this interpretation, the Lord came, not physically, but he came in the sense that he sent the Romans to punish the Jews in Jerusalem for not believing in him.
And then, when he says in verse 31 that he will send his angels, the Lord means he will send his messengers — his apostles and preachers — to gather his elect by preaching the gospel to them. The word translated ‘angels’ can also be translated ‘messengers’.
That’s the interpretation I favoured when I preached on Mark’s version of this chapter in 2018. However, I think I’ve changed my mind and now prefer the other interpretation which I mentioned briefly at that time. According to this interpretation, the Lord is referring in verses 4 to 28 to what we can expect to see throughout the rest of history. That is to say, he’s referring to what we can expect in these, the last days in which we’re living, which is the whole of history from the time of the Lord’s ascension to heaven to the time when he comes again to judge the living and the dead. These are the things we can expect in these, the last days.
And the destruction of the temple in AD70 is one concrete example of the kind of thing we can expect in these, the last days.
And then verses 29 to 31 are about the Lord’s second coming at the end of the age, when he will send his angels to gather his elect people.
And the Lord will continue to speak about his second coming from verse 36 onwards where he’ll make clear that no one knows when it will happen and therefore we need to keep watch. But before he gets to that, he goes back in verses 32 to 35 to talking about these, the last days in which we’re living. And he says that the generation he was talking to at that time will see those things. That is, they will see the beginning of the last days.
So, that’s the interpretation I now favour. Let’s now take a look at the passage in a little more detail.
Verses 4 to 14
According to verse 4, in these, the last days, in which we’re living, God’s people need to be careful, because there will be false teachers who will try to deceive us. Many will come, says the Lord Jesus in verse 5, claiming to be the Christ. That is, people will come and claim to be the Saviour of the world and therefore we should follow them and give our allegiance to them. This fits in with what we read in 1 John 2 where John warns us about the many antichrists who will come in these, the last days. They will come to deceive us.
And in these, the last days, there will be wars and rumours of wars. But don’t be alarmed, because these are not signs that the end has come. When there’s a war or a rumour of a war, don’t take this as a sign that the end is nigh, because the whole of the period between Christ’s ascension and his coming again will be a time when wars happen. In these, the last days, we can expect nation to rise up against nation and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. These may be terrible, but they do not signal that the end has come or even that it is near, because just as a woman might experience birth pains for some time before the baby is born, so these things can go on for some time before the Saviour comes again.
And according to verse 9 God’s people can expect to be persecuted. They will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death. Christians can expect to be hated by all nations because of Christ. And because of the threat of persecution, many believers will turn away from the faith and they will even betray one another. Think of the book of Hebrews and how it was written to Christians who were suffering for their faith; and the writer was encouraging them to stand firm and not to give up the faith. The book of Revelation teaches us to do the same.
And in verse 11 the Lord warns us again about false prophets who will appear and who will deceive many people. And because of the increase of wickedness, the love of many will grow cold. He’s referring to the way more and more people will disregard God’s law and they will therefore do what is evil in his sight. And so, instead of loving one another, people will hate one another. It’s not clear, but it’s possible he’s referring here to believers. Since they’ve been deceived by false teachers, they have given in to wickedness and have given up loving one another.
Nevertheless the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. And in these, the last days in which we’re living, the gospel will be proclaimed in the whole world. So, despite the danger of persecution and false teaching, the gospel will be proclaimed throughout the whole world before the end will come.
Verses 15 to 21
The following verses — 15 to 21 — refer specifically to the destruction of the temple in AD70 as a concrete example of the kind of upheaval and distress we can expect in these, the last days. He refers in verse 15 to ‘the abomination that causes desolation’. He’s using a phrase which comes from Daniel 11, which means he’s using Old Testament language to refer to something which will soon happen. It’s not entirely clear to what he’s now referring, but before Jerusalem was besieged and destroyed by the Romans, the temple was taken over by Jewish Zealots, who had rebelled against the Romans. In fact, their rebellion is what led to the destruction of the city. And the Zealots desecrated the temple and appointed a clown as high priest. And so, they made a mockery of the temple worship. It’s possible the Lord is referring to this. And he says in verse 16 that those who are in Judea should flee to the mountains when this takes place. In other words, when you see this abomination in the temple, run for your lives, because it won’t be long before the city is destroyed and everyone in it. So, run for your life! Don’t hesitate. Don’t go back for your belongings.
He says it’s going to be dreadful for pregnant women and nursing mothers, because they won’t be able to flee as quickly as others. And pray that it won’t happen in winter or on the Sabbath when travelling will be difficult. But when you see this abomination in the temple, run for your lives, because great distress is coming.
The Roman historian, Josephus, confirms what the Lord said about the distress of the seige, because Josephus refers to the horrors of the seige and the hunger of the people and the terrible things they did because of their desperation. Mothers even ate their own children. It was a terrible time. But another ancient historian tells us that, before the seige took place, Christians in Jerusalem left the city. They left the city and made for the mountains where they were kept safe, because they paid attention to the Lord’s warning and they fled for their lives while there was still time.
Verses 22 to 28
In verse 22 the Lord refers to ‘those days’. Which days? He might be referring to the days of the seige of Jerusalem. But perhaps we should take it that he’s referring to these, the last days in which we’re living. And he says that God will not let these, the last days, continue indefinitely, but he will cut them short for the sake of his people. The sorrow and suffering, the trials and tribulations, the wars and famines and earthquakes and the persecution and the deception will come to an end. When it seems we can’t go on, the Lord will come again to punish his enemies and to bring his people into the new heaven and earth where we will enjoy perfect peace and rest in the presence of the Lord.
But the Lord once again warns us about false Christs and false prophets. False teachers will come to try to deceive people. And the false teachers will perform great signs and wonders to lead us astray. But instead of being taken in by them, we’re to wait for the coming of the Lord.
And his coming will be obvious. It won’t happen in secret. He won’t appear in a desert or in an inner room, where no one will see it. His coming will light up the sky. Just as everyone can see the vultures gathering over a carcass, so everyone will see the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.
That’s as far we we’ll go this evening. But the things we read here recall the things we read in the rest of the New Testament about the troubles and trials we can expect to suffer in these, the last days in which we’re living. But instead of giving in and giving up the faith, we need to stand firm and persevere with the help of the Lord, because in the end our suffering will be worth it, when Christ our Saviour comes again to bring us into the new heaven and earth, where God will wipe the tears from our eyes and where we’ll enjoy perfect peace and rest on God’s holy mountain.
And while we wait for Christ to come again, we should pray for other brothers and sisters around the world who are suffering for the faith, asking God to help them to stand firm. And we can pray that the gospel of Christ’s kingdom will be preached in the whole world and that many will turn and be saved.