Characteristics of the Present Age (Matthew 24:1-8)
Matthew 24 and 25 are very closely linked together. They give us what Sir Robert Anderson has called the second sermon on the mount. All that we have in these two chapters was uttered by our Lord on the mount of Olives in answer to the questions of His disciples, “When shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world [or age]?” (24:3) His answers deserve a much more careful consideration than we can give them here. In Matthew 24 He shows the conditions that will prevail in the world during the time of His rejection. The prophet Daniel called this period “the time of the end,” the great tribulation immediately preceding our Lord’s return as Son of man to set up the kingdom of Heaven on this earth in power and glory.
After His most solemn denunciation of the hypocritical scribes and Pharisees and His expression of grief over the blindness and insubjection of the people of Jerusalem in Matthew 23, the Lord left the temple courts where He had been preaching and teaching. With His disciples, Jesus walked across the brook Kedron to the mount of Olives. Before they left the city the disciples attempted to arouse His admiration for the beautiful buildings on the temple site. Jesus’ words (Matthew 24:2) must have seemed a prophecy that was unlikely to be fulfilled. In the eyes of His followers those buildings looked substantial enough to stand for many centuries. Yet His words were to be proved true after a probationary period of forty years.
Evidently the disciples linked the prediction of Jesus to what He had said on former occasions concerning His second coming. Therefore after they had reached the mount that overlooked the fair but doomed city, they put three questions to Him. Note the questions in order:
1. “When shall these things be?” That is, when will Jerusalem be destroyed? The answer to this is given more fully in Luke’s report of Jesus’ discourse (Luke 21:20-24).
2. “What shall be the sign of thy coming?” Both Matthew 24 and Mark 13 give the answer to this.
3. “What shall be the sign of… the end [consummation, or full end] of the world?” They were not asking about the end of the world as such, but about the end of the age. This is answered here and also in Mark 13. Each evangelist wrote as guided by the Holy Spirit.
The conditions depicted in Matthew 24:4-8 have marked all the centuries since the Lord returned to Heaven. They do not in themselves tell us of the nearness of His return, but they show us how badly this poor world needs a competent ruler and how all creation groans as it waits for His advent.
“Take heed that no man deceive you.” Satan works by imitation. He seeks to ensnare by counterfeiting everything that is of God. Hence the necessity to be on guard constantly against his deceptions. We need to test everything by the Holy Scriptures.
“Many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ.” The number of impostors or antichrists have been legion. Often such men, and occasionally women, have given every evidence of paranoia; but many have been willful deceivers. No one would ever have been led astray by such pretenders to messiahship if they had remembered that Christ is not coming again to earth as He came before through the gate of birth. He will come as the Lord from Heaven accompanied by the whole celestial train.
“The end is not yet.” Ever since He ascended to Heaven wars and rumors of wars have been constant reminders of man’s folly in rejecting the Prince of peace; but these are not evidences of the closing up of the age. It is a mistake to look on the conflicts of nations as being in themselves signs that the second advent is close at hand.
Verse 7 depicts a series of great wars in which many nations and kingdoms will be engaged. Such conflicts have been frequent during the past nineteen hundred years and have increased in intensity and frightfulness during the last century; the world wars of 1914-18 and 1939-45 were the worst mankind has ever known. Famines and pestilences invariably succeed widespread warfare. Matthew adds earthquakes in many places to these plagues, which would seem to imply a great increase in natural convulsions as the end draws nigh.
“All these are the beginning of sorrows.” These events are to be followed by far worse and more startling conditions before the Son of man appears in person to bring in the kingdom which was rejected when He was here the first time.
The secret of the rapture of the church prior to the endtime is not introduced here in this great prophetic discourse. That was still a hidden mystery when Jesus spoke these words. There is no time set for it, nor are there any signs indicated. The signs here all have to do with His revelation from Heaven as the King who is to return to take His great power and reign. The coming of the Son of man refers always to this event, never to the rapture.
Signs of the Last Days (Matthew 24:9-14)
The conditions depicted in verses 9-14 fit perfectly with the first half of the unfulfilled seventieth week of Daniel; and therefore it is quite possible that the rapture should be fitted in between Matthew 24:8-9. On the other hand, similar conditions have taken place again and again during the so-called Christian centuries, but they will be accentuated in the time of the end.1
“Ye shall be hated of all nations for my name’s sake.” The martyrdom of the saints, first under pagan rule, then under papal Rome, and later under various other evil systems, is not to be ignored when considering this prophecy. Martyrdom will not cease when the church of God is caught away. Then the Lord will call out a new testimony when He gives Israel another chance. Many of His witnesses in those dark days will be called on to lay down their lives during the reign of the imperial atheistic beast-power of the last days and his satellite, the personal antichrist. So these predictions will have a double fulfillment—during the present age of grace, and in the coming period of judgment.
Then there will be great apostasy when many will be stumbled, and faithful servants of God will be betrayed by their closest relatives. This too has had a partial fulfillment during this dispensation. History repeats itself, both in the professing church and in the world.
The closer we come to the end the more active Satan will be, knowing his time is short. So “many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many.”
Because of abounding iniquity those professing allegiance to Christ will be grievously tested; and where love was only superficial it will become cold, and so apostasy will prevail.
The test of reality in any age is endurance. So it is now, and so it will be in the day of grief and sorrow that lies ahead of Christendom. “He that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved.” In order to fit these solemn words into the truth revealed elsewhere of the believer’s eternal security, it is not necessary to say that they apply solely to the tribulation period. It is true always that only those who endure will be finally saved. But when one has been born of God and so received eternal life, he will endure. “Whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith” (1 John 5:4). He who makes a profession of faith in Christ and then in the hour of testing repudiates it and goes back like a dog to his vomit, or a sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire (2 Peter 2:20-22) gives evidence that he was never born of the Word and Spirit of God. Had such an one been a sheep belonging to the Good Shepherd he would never have been attracted to the hog wallow.
The Great Tribulation (Matthew 24:15-28)
The great tribulation in its full sense will begin in the midst of the seventieth week (the last seven years) of Daniel’s great time-prophecy. It will be ushered in by the setting up of the abomination that maketh desolate (Daniel 12:11). In Matthew 24:15-28 we have a graphic portrayal of the outstanding events of the time of trouble, “such as never was since there was a nation even to that same time” (Daniel 12:1).
The abomination of desolation of old (Daniel 11:31) was an image set up by Antiochus Epiphanes, king of Syria, in the temple at Jerusalem, after he had defiled the sanctuary by offering a sow on the altar and sprinkling its blood in the holy places. The abomination of desolation in the future will evidently be some outward acknowledgment of the apostate power and the antichrist. Forewarned by this prophecy, saints in those days will recognize this sign of coming distress and will flee from Jerusalem and from Palestine to “the wilderness of the people” (Ezekiel 20:35), where they will be hidden from the wrath of the beast and his followers “until the indignation be overpast” (Isaiah 26:20). These saints will be “the brethren” of the Lord and will be living on the earth when the Son of man will come in His glory. Christ speaks of these people in Matthew 25:31-46, when He pictures the judgment of the nations.
These faithful Jews, the remnant so often mentioned in the prophets, will flee in haste, not waiting to take their goods and chattels with them, lest the fury of the antichrist burst upon them. They are exhorted to pray that their flight be not in the winter nor on the sabbath day. This warning, in itself, indicates a different condition of things from that prevailing in this present age. While this remnant will be waiting for the manifestation of Messiah, they will be on Jewish ground, under law, not yet having entered into the liberty of grace.
“Then shall be great tribulation”—such distress as had not been known from the world’s beginning unto that time. So terrible will be the conditions that unless God in mercy shortens the days no flesh would be saved. But for the sake of the elect—not the elect of the church but of Israel—He will shorten the days. They are numbered as actually 1260 days in the book of Revelation. This would be 3½ years, made up of 30-day months, and so considerably shorter than the full time if the years were counted as having 365 days each.
In the time of trouble all who have turned to God will be looking for the Son of man to return and give deliverance. Satan will attempt to deceive them by offering false christs, and above all, presenting the personal antichrist as the expected one. But those who know God and rely on His Word—“the very elect”—will be prepared to refuse all such deceptions.
If told that Messiah has come already and is manifesting Himself in the desert, they are not to seek Him there. If told He is hidden in some secret place, they are not to believe it. For His coming will be in visible glory when He shines forth from Heaven as lightning flaming across the sky.
As the great tribulation moves on to its culmination, apostate Judaism, centering in Jerusalem, will be as a putrid carcass against which the eagles (or vultures) will be gathered together. This is a vivid picture of the gathering of the armies of “all nations against Jerusalem to battle,” as foretold in Zechariah 14 and other Scriptures.
The Coming of the Son of Man (Matthew 24:29-31)
The second advent will take place at the very time when it will seem as though Satan’s triumph is complete. “Immediately after the tribulation of those days.. .then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven.” There are many who hold and teach that the great tribulation is past already: that it referred to the great persecution for over two centuries under pagan Rome, or to the worse persecutions under papal Rome in the years preceding and following the Protestant Reformation. But our Lord tells us definitely here that His second advent is immediately after the close of that time of trouble; so that it is evident that this day of trial is yet in the future. When it comes to its complete fulfillment there will be remarkable manifestations among the heavenly bodies and the Son of man will be seen “coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” The tribes of the earth, or more properly, of the land, will then mourn when they look on Him whom they once rejected, and whom they pierced (Zechariah 12:10-12). They will realize at last that He is the King, the anointed One for whose coming they have waited so long.
Then the great trumpet will be blown (Isaiah 27:13). The angels will gather together the elect from all quarters of the earth, those who in that time of testing will have received the kingdom message and so are prepared to welcome the King at His return. This is not at all the same event as the rapture of 1 Thessalonians 4. There the saints living and dead will be changed and raised from the grave, and caught up to meet the Lord in the air. But when the Son of man descends to the earth His elect will be gathered from the four winds to greet Him as their King and deliverer. Thus at long last the throne of David will be set up again in Jerusalem, and the law will go forth from mount Zion, where Christ Himself will reign in righteousness for a thousand glorious years (Revelation 20).
The Sign of Christ’s Coming (Matthew 24:32-35)
In these verses the Lord answers the disciples’ question, “What shall be the sign of thy coming?”
The pre-eminent sign that the time for the appearing of the Son of man has drawn near is that of the budding fig tree. The fig tree is the well-known symbol of Israel nationally. For many centuries the scattered Israelites, once claimed by God as His own covenant people, have had no national existence. But today they are returning to Palestine in large numbers and once more indulging in the sense of again being a distinct nation. Thus the fig tree is putting forth its green leaves, and thereby proclaiming the near return of Him who is yet to be acknowledged as their Messiah and King. At present they are going back in unbelief, as the Scriptures indicate they would, for it is after many have returned to the land that the nation will be regenerated. If the new life displayed in the fig tree heralds the approach of the day of Israel’s blessing, how near must be the hour of the rapture!
How Matthew 24:33 should speak to the people of God today as well as to the remnant of Israel in days to come! “When you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates” (rsv). His return is certain, for His Word can never fail. Though Heaven and earth should pass away His words will never pass away.
The Time of Christ’s Return (Matthew 24: 36-41)
The comparison of the antediluvian world with that which will exist at the Lord’s return contradicts the idea indulged in and propagated by many that all mankind is to be converted before that day comes. Such an expectation is but an idle dream without any Scriptural teaching to support it. As it was in the days of Noah so will the coming of the Son of man be. In the days preceding the flood men lived carelessly and self-indulgently. Corruption and violence filled the earth. God’s message given through Noah was spurned as an idle tale. The flood came and destroyed them all while they were insensible to their danger. So will it be at the Lord’s coming.
Then two will be working in the field, one a believer and the other an unbeliever. The latter will be taken away by judgment; the other will be left to enter the kingdom and enjoy its blessings. It will be likewise with two women grinding corn for the morning meal. This passage is often applied to the separation at the rapture, and it is quite possible so to use it. But in that case we would understand the righteous would be caught away to meet the Lord in the air, and the other left to endure the judgment of the tribulation era.
No one can know beforehand just when the Son of man will return. It will behoove all, therefore, who live in that day of trial to be ever watching lest He come as a thief in the night.
Our Duty to Watch (Matthew 24:42-51)
Responsibility to live for God and witness for Christ while waiting and watching for His appearing is stressed in the closing verses of Matthew 24. It is a great responsibility to be put in trust with any measure of divine truth. What is given is not for our own information alone but to be passed on to others. “It is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful” (1 Corinthians 4:2). Those to whom the Lord has made known His purpose and counsels are therefore called on to act as good stewards of the manifold grace of God, sharing with the household of faith the spiritual food for their encouragement and edification.
The servant who fulfills his responsibilities along this line will be duly rewarded in the day of manifestation. But if anyone attempts to trifle with the truth, putting far off the coming of the Master, and lives selfishly, displaying a haughty overbearing spirit, he will have to face the Judge at an unexpected hour and will be given his portion with the hypocrites. Such a false servant is of course not a true child of God at all, but he will be judged nevertheless according to the profession he has made. It is a very serious thing to use one’s knowledge of the truth of God for selfish enrichment, with no real concern for those to whose needs one is called to minister. All service is to be in view of the coming again of the King when His faithful servants will have their places appointed in the kingdom according to the measure of their devotedness during the day of testimony.
1 The perplexed reader might find help in the author’s Lectures on Daniel the Prophet and The Great Parenthesis. In these the prophecy of the seventy weeks is fully explained.