Our Past and Future Hope – Chapter Four: Messiah and the Fate of Jerusalem

Matthew 24

This is chapter four of Our Past and Future Hope: Reintroducing a Traditional Faith-Building Eschatology by Jason Giles. The Contents page is here.

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The PDF/Epub ebook version is available here.

It cannot be overstated just how influential Jesus’ words in Matthew 24 are to our view of the end times today. Also known as the Little Apocalypse or the Olivet Discourse, it is where we get our idea of the rapture, the tribulation, and the Antichrist in the Temple, all wrapped up in one place in the Gospels. Jesus hasn’t returned yet, so we’re still waiting for it all to happen. It seems pretty cut-and-dried, right?

The Most Embarrassing Verse 

The problem is that Jesus said these events would happen within ‘this generation,’ i.e., the people standing there listening to him say it: “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened” (Matthew 24:34). A biblical generation is usually 40 years, which is the length of time the Israelites were made to wander in the wilderness: “The LORD’s anger burned against Israel and he made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until the whole generation of those who had done evil in his sight was gone” (Numbers 32:13). So was Jesus really saying that it wouldn’t be more than 40 years before the apocalypse happens?

C.S. Lewis believed as much, and so he called Matthew 24:34 “the most embarrassing verse in the Bible.”1 Others try to explain it by interpreting the Greek word for ‘generation’ as ‘race’ or ‘ethnic group,’ meaning that Jews would still be around when the events Jesus mentions will happen. But there is another way to explain this passage that takes Christ’s words seriously, and harmonizes with events both past and future.

Three Questions

We often miss one little detail in Matthew 24 that makes a huge difference: Jesus is asked three questions, and gives each one an answer. The problem is that it’s not nicely formatted and categorized for us to recognize at a glance which question is being answered where, so we treat it as if one question was asked- “Hey Jesus, what happens in the end times?”

It turns out that is one of the questions the disciples asked! But again, there are three. Here is the beginning of the passage:

Jesus left the temple area and was going on His way when His disciples came up to point out the temple buildings to Him. But He responded and said to them, “Do you not see all these things? Truly I say to you, not one stone here will be left upon another, which will not be torn down.”

And as He was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things happen, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:1-3, NASB, emphasis mine)

The setting is the view of the Second Temple from the Mount of Olives, newly remodeled by Herod the Builder. The disciples proudly point out the beautiful buildings, when Jesus gives them the shocking news that they will be completely destroyed. The Jewish center of worship, the Temple of the God of the Universe, the place Daniel earnestly prayed would be restored, desolate again? Upon hearing this shocking news, the disciples must know 1.) when will these things happen, 2.) what is the sign of your coming, 3.) and of the end of the age?

Right away we can say with all confidence that these things- the main subject of the entire discussion- did happen. The Temple was indeed completely destroyed, with not one stone left on another. It remains so to this day, nearly 2000 years later. However, we can also say that Jesus has not yet returned to judge all the people of the earth, nor has ‘the end of the age’ happened. Is there any way to sort through the rest of the passage?

In a prophetic sense, Jesus is answering all three questions with the same description. Barnes writes:

To these questions He replies in this and the following chapters. This He does, not by noticing them distinctly, but by intermingling the descriptions of the destruction of Jerusalem and of the end of the world, so that it is sometimes difficult to tell to what particular subject his remarks apply. The principle on which this combined description of two events was spoken appears to be, that “they could be described in the same words,” and therefore the accounts are intermingled.2

This is the same kind of prophetic language used often in Isaiah, where at many points a more immediate future event is foretold along with a distant future event. For example, Isaiah 11 foretells the deliverance that Messiah will bring to Israel: “In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious” (Isaiah 11:10). In the very next verses, it foretells the Lord rescuing his people from captivity: “In that day the Lord will reach out his hand a second time to reclaim the surviving remnant of his people from Assyria, from Lower Egypt, from Upper Egypt, from Cush, from Elam, from Babylonia, from Hamath and from the islands of the Mediterranean. He will raise a banner for the nations and gather the exiles of Israel; he will assemble the scattered people of Judah from the four quarters of the earth” (Isaiah 11:11-12). The two events are centuries apart, but the distant and then immediate futures are intermingled in the same prophecy. “And in the same manner Isaiah, Hosea, Amos, and Micah very often connect the deliverance under the Messiah with that which was to be effected from the captivity at Babylon, without noticing the long train of intermediate events.”3 Commentator Craig Keener also remarks on this:

Old Testament prophets often grouped events together by their topic rather than their chronology, and in this discourse Jesus does the same. He addresses what in Matthew are grammatically two separate questions: the time of the temple’s destruction and the time of the end. The disciples may have viewed these questions as integrally related, but Jesus will distinguish them: when will the temple be destroyed (within a generation)? What will be the sign of his coming (at an hour known to no one)?4

Jesus gives an answer to all three questions, which are really two different events, all in one ‘discourse.’ There are clues in some of the verses in Matthew 24 that help us distinguish which event Jesus is referring to, whether the more immediate future destruction of the Temple, or his distant future return and ‘the end of the age.’

‘These Things’

Again, the main topic of discussion is the destruction of the Temple, Jesus’ shocking words that spurred the first question the disciples asked: when will these things happen? The first section of his answer, verses 4-28, largely concern this more immediate event, but with language of “such an amplitude of meaning as also to express” the more distant event: the coming of Jesus in the last days to judge all the people of the earth.

Jesus begins his answer with a description of what would happen in those days:

Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains. (Matthew 24:4-8)

All of these events did happen in the disciples’ times, especially false messiahs. In the Jewish Wars that ended with the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., there was a civil war in Jerusalem between at least three factions, each led by men claiming to be the Messiah.5 The Jews of this time were expecting the Messiah to rise up and free them from Roman rule, and Jesus did not live up to their expectations in this regard. So false messiahs arose to take up this banner, bringing many to their cause, but failing miserably.

There were also many wars and rumors of wars in the Roman Empire in the time before the destruction of the Temple. When Jesus spoke this prophecy, the Empire was at peace. But 69 A.D. was known as the “Year of the Four Emperors” when civil war engulfed the Empire and four emperors suffered violent deaths in the space of eighteen months. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, other wars were rumored and threatened against Palestine at this time, but they were not carried out.

As for famines and earthquakes, the Scriptures record how Agabus prophesied “that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius)” (Acts 11:28). According to Josephus, this famine was so severe in Jerusalem that “many people died for want of what was necessary to procure food.”6 Barnes write that “four times in the reign of Claudius (41-54 A.D.) famine prevailed in Rome, Palestine, and Greece.”7 The Roman historian Tacitus also recorded many earthquakes, some of which destroyed entire cities in the Empire.8 These events were signs that the judgment against Jerusalem was coming.

Jesus continues:

9 Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. 10 At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, 11 and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. 12 Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, 13 but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Matthew 24:9-14)

The disciples certainly saw the fulfillment of persecution as seen in the Scriptures. They were beaten, imprisoned, and brought to trial before the leaders of the synagogues as well as rulers and kings. “Stephen was stoned (Acts 7:59); James was killed by Herod (Acts 12:2)… Most of the apostles, it is believed, died by persecution.”9 Christians were hated throughout the Roman Empire- according to Tacitus, Emperor Nero blamed them for the Great Fire of Rome in 64 A.D., and they were fiercely persecuted:

Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle…10

Just as there were false Messiahs, there were also false prophets. According to Josephus, an Egyptian false prophet gathered 30,000 followers in the wilderness around Jerusalem. He led them to the very site of this prophecy, the Mount of Olives, and attempted to force his way into the city and conquer the Roman garrison. The Roman Procurator Felix prevented the attempt, however, killing or arresting the majority of the mob.11 Josephus tells us about another false prophet who led thousands to their death by proclaiming that God commanded them to rush to the Temple, where “they should receive miraculous signs of their deliverance,” on the very day Roman soldiers overran the Temple.12 False prophets were common in Jerusalem, because they were bribed to speak a message of God’s deliverance in order to keep the people from deserting the city.13

It can certainly be said that the events in the verses above were fulfilled in a remarkable way, but how can it be said that the gospel was preached in the whole world (Matthew 24:14)? Because Paul tells us it was: “In the same way, the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world—just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and truly understood God’s grace… This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant” (Colossians 1:6b…23b, emphasis mine). The Greek word for world in Matthew 24:14 is oikoumenē, often defined as “the portion of the earth inhabited by the Greeks, in distinction from the lands of the barbarians,” or “the Roman empire, all the subjects of the empire.”14 Paul preached the gospel throughout the Roman Empire, and said of the church in Rome in particular that “your faith is being reported all over the world” (Romans 1:8).

Well, if the gospel has been preached in the whole ‘world,’ how can it be said the end has come (Matthew 24:14)? In a very real way, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple was an end to the Jewish system of civic and religious life. But remember, these words are spoken with a gravity that applies to their immediate fulfillment, yet also extends to the final ‘end’- the second return of Christ and the judgment of all the people of the Earth. In the same way, the gospel continues to be preached to the whole world, and will truly reach every tribe and tongue and nation (as seen in Revelation 7:9). Both events could be described in the same words.

The Great Tribulation

Jesus then moves on to the main event of ‘these things’: the razing of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple:

15 “So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand— 16 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 17 Let no one on the housetop go down to take anything out of the house. 18 Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. 19 How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! 20 Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. 21 For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again.

22 If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened. 23 At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. 24 For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. 25 See, I have told you ahead of time.

26 “So if anyone tells you, ‘There he is, out in the wilderness,’ do not go out; or, ‘Here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. 27 For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 28 Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather. (Matthew 24:15-28)

When Jesus mentions ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ he is quoting the seventy ‘sevens’ prophecy in Daniel 9, which we looked at in the previous chapter of this book. That prophecy is about the coming of the Messiah, now fulfilled by Jesus himself! But Daniel earnestly wondered about the fate of Jerusalem and the Temple, and so the last line of that prophecy (verse 27) mentions its final destruction after the Messiah is ‘cut off,’ or killed suddenly. Jesus was now talking specifically about the terrible judgment to come against the city and Temple. He was warning them to flee Judea quickly when they saw this final sign of its destruction.

What was the nature of this sign? We get a clue from the parallel passage to Matthew 24 in Luke 21:20-21: “‘When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. 21 Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city.” These were the Roman armies who eventually surrounded the city and laid siege to it. Being Gentiles, their presence in the Holy City and Temple was ‘abominable,’ as were their army standards with images of the emperor and eagles, which they worshiped as divine. At one point during the siege, the Roman army broke into the city and set up their standards right next to the Temple. After attempting to break into the Temple and nearly succeeding, the Romans pulled back for seemingly no reason whatsoever. Jewish fighters pursued them as they retreated, allowing some to flee the doomed city for a space of about three days.15 This was their last chance to heed the warning Jesus gave them.

So began the “great tribulation” (verse 21 as it is translated in the KJV), as this is where we get the phrase from. This truth is hard for us to accept for a couple of reasons: 1.) We are often unaware of just how devastating the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple were, and 2.) We have always been taught that the great tribulation in this passage is a future event.

Never to be Equaled Again

We are rarely taught the gruesome facts of history surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 A.D. The historian Josephus, who gives the most exhaustive account of it, writes, “It appears to me that the misfortunes of all men, from the beginning of the world, if they be compared to these of the Jews are not so considerable as they were.”16

During this time, Judea was plagued by war in their revolt against Rome. Due to refugees flooding Jerusalem and the celebration of the Passover, the city was estimated to be packed with 3 million people. “Now this vast multitude is indeed collected out of remote places. But the entire nation was now shut up by fate, as in prison; and the Roman army encompassed the city when it was crowded with inhabitants. Accordingly the multitude of those that therein perished exceeded all the destructions that either men or God ever brought upon the world.”17

The Romans laid siege to the city, and famine came soon after. “Now of those that perished by famine in the city, the number was prodigious; and the miseries they underwent were unspeakable. For if so much as the shadow of any kind of food did any where appear, a war was commenced presently; and the dearest friends fell a fighting one with another about it: snatching from each other the most miserable supports of life.”18 In desperation, they chewed on any leather, fibers, or hay they could find. Josephus relates the tragic story of one woman who had been robbed multiple times, and in hunger and rage she killed, roasted, and ate half of her infant son before being discovered.19

Many who attempted to leave the city to forage for food were caught and killed by the Jews as deserters. Those that did make it out were caught by the hundreds daily, and to make an example out of them, the Roman commander Titus had them crucified. So many hundreds died in this way that Josephus says the hills were covered in crosses, and they ran out of both places and wood to put up any more.20

Eventually, the Roman armies broke into the city. They killed many whom they found alive, but many more were found already dead by civil war, disease, and famine. Thousands of corpses were found sealed in subterranean chambers under the city where they had attempted to hide. In all, Josephus put the total number of those who died during the whole siege at one million, one hundred thousand. Ninety-seven thousand people were taken into captivity, whether sold into slavery, kept for wild beasts in arenas, or sent to work as slaves in the Egyptian mines.21 Miller writes:

There has not been from the foundation of Babylon of old to this day a more horrible destruction. No other city has ever lost over one million people, dead in a single siege! Dio says over 540,000 Jews died directly from battle and the people who died as a result of famine and disease and internal disorder were uncountable. Eusebius gives the same number as Josephus, or 1,100,000 total dead in the siege. Thus are fulfilled the words of Jesus that there would be great tribulation of these proportions associated with the destruction of Jerusalem as well as nations rising against nation.22

Jesus the Prophet

Jesus foretold this destruction of the city and the Temple, and the events that would precede it, warning them that ‘these things’ would happen within 40 years. As the Messiah, he came to fulfill the roles of prophet, priest, and king, and here he was prophesying the judgment to come within the generation of those listening. Moses foretold that this prophet would come long ago: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him” (Deuteronomy 18:15). He also told them, “You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord?” If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously, so do not be alarmed” (Deuteronomy 18:21-22).

We know that Jesus has spoken the truth, and his prediction came to pass precisely when and how he said it would. Jesus’ disciples and the Christians living in Jerusalem took his warnings seriously and were spared because of it:

Jerusalem was taken in the autumn of 70 A.D. Before its fall the Christians had left the doomed city. While the greater part retired beyond the Jordan and founded Christian colonies at Pella and the neighborhood, the principle leaders of the church — the surviving apostles and other personal disciples of the Lord — sought a new home in proconsular Asia. Henceforward we find the headquarters of Christendom no more at Jerusalem, nor even at Antioch but, (for the time at least) in Ephesus. Here John fixed his abode after his temporary banishment in Patmos.23

The believers understood and recognized the warning signs Jesus had given them and were spared from calamity! The Greek historian Eusebius tells us the same: “But the people of the church in Jerusalem had been commanded by a revelation, vouchsafed to approved men there before the war, to leave the city and to dwell in a certain town of Perea called Pella.”24 Jesus warned them against false prophets and messiahs, and there were many of both at that time, according to historical records. He rightly said, “See, I have told you ahead of time” (Matthew 24:25).

Why should we be embarrassed of Christ’s predictions, as if he were a failed prophet? Or why distort the interpretation of Jesus’ words ‘this generation’ to fit our supposed timeline of the future? When the historical fulfillment is understood, we should be full of joy and wonder that Jesus is the Prophet, and his words are vindicated.

The Coming of the Son of Man

As we have just seen by using hindsight and facts of history, verses 4-28 are easily applied to the first topic the disciples asked about: the destruction of the Temple and razing of Jerusalem. In the rest of the chapter, Jesus goes on to answer the questions of his coming and the end of the age, again using the principle that ‘both events could be described in the same words.’ Yet we must wait for the later fulfillment to completely understand them, because only that event will clear these verses up.

Using our earlier example from Isaiah, when the exiles from Babylon and the other nations they were scattered to had returned to Jerusalem, they could read Isaiah 11:11-12 and understand their fulfillment: “In that day the Lord will reach out his hand a second time to reclaim the surviving remnant of his people from Assyria, from Lower Egypt, from Upper Egypt, from Cush, from Elam, from Babylonia, from Hamath and from the islands of the Mediterranean. He will raise a banner for the nations and gather the exiles of Israel; he will assemble the scattered people of Judah from the four quarters of the earth.” Yet they might not quite grasp the verses that came before these: “In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious” (Isaiah 11:10), because this verse and the ones before it apply to a Messiah that had not yet come. Somehow both are still considered to be “in that day”! This is the nature of prophecy: we must focus on what has been fulfilled, and seeing God’s faithfulness to his promises, we look forward in faith to what is sure to come.

The rest of the chapter is below:

29 “Immediately after the distress of those days

“‘the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’

30 “Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. 31 And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.

32 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 33 Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. 34 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.

36 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; 39 and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.

42 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. 43 But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.

45 “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? 46 It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. 47 Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. 48 But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time,’ 49 and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. 50 The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. 51 He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 24:29-51)

The Day and Hour Unknown

One principle from the previous verses that seems to bear repeating in every generation is that no one knows the day or the hour of Christ’s return (verse 36). How often this word from Christ is violated, each and every time to our shame and the discrediting of the gospel. Whether it’s blood moons, Y2K, the Mayan calendar, the Prophecy of the Popes, or 88 reasons Why The Rapture Will Be in 1988, each and every one is flawed from the outset. There is good reason to believe that the traditional understanding of prophecy that is being shared in this book, namely historicism, fell into decline in part due to this kind of abuse.

Historicism was the most common understanding of prophecy in Scripture from the Reformation until the middle of the 19th century. In that latter time there was a Baptist preacher named William Miller who taught a bastardized version of historicism, and additionally set a date for the return of Christ by 1844. This started a fervor among ‘Millerites,’ many of whom had given away all their possessions and left their work in anticipation of the three different dates that ended up being set when the previous one failed. When the last precise set date of October 22, 1844, came and went, the event was called the Great Disappointment, and they were left disillusioned. The Seventh Day Adventists were born from the leftovers of this movement, still teaching the unorthodox version of historicism that Miller invented. Repeat after me: no one knows the day or the hour.

Taken Away

The verses that follow this warning are frequently brought up when teaching about the rapture:

37 As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; 39 and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. (Matthew 24:37-41)

The rapture is a biblical concept where believers will meet Jesus in the air when he returns, based chiefly on 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17: “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.”

On the other hand, the ‘secret’ rapture taught today is the popular interpretation that Jesus will come on two separate occasions- once to meet believers in the air secretly, in a way that only they will hear and see him; and again a few years later, alongside the believers, to judge all people and claim his kingdom. There are two problems with using Matthew 24 to support this idea: 1.) all people will see him when he comes, and 2.) being ‘taken’ in the context of these verses is not necessarily a good thing.

  1. All people will see him: Matthew 24:27 says, “For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” His coming will be seen by all, and announced with a loud voice and trumpet call: “Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other” (Matthew 24:30-31). The shout and trumpet call are also stated in the verses in 1 Thessalonians 4 about the rapture, quoted above. Revelation 1:7 says, “‘Look, he is coming with the clouds,’ and ‘every eye will see him, even those who pierced him’; and all peoples on earth ‘will mourn because of him.’ So shall it be! Amen.”
  2. Being ‘taken’ by the flood: A close look at verses 37-41 reveals that the allusion to being taken is a reference to the ‘days of Noah,’ when “the flood came and took them all away” (verse 39, emphasis mine). So it would be more desirable to be the one ‘left behind’ rather than taken by the flood, or by death.

The biblical idea of the rapture is that Jesus comes once, both to gather the elect, and then judge all people. Christians meet him in the air like a welcoming party, and join him in his triumphant return to Earth.25 The main idea expressed in this chapter is that the Son of Man came to judge Jerusalem, and he will come again to judge all people. Both events can be described using the same words.

Traditional Vs. Modern Interpretation

Because the immediate and future events in this passage are seemingly all mixed together, it can be difficult to determine what has been fulfilled and what has not. The modern futurist view bypasses this difficulty by pushing everything into the ‘unfulfilled’ category, except maybe ‘the beginning of the birth pains’- wars, famines, earthquakes, false messiahs- things that have undeniably happened these nearly two thousand years later. Yes, the Temple is currently utterly destroyed, but this view insists it must be built again so that a deceitful world leader can stand in it and call himself God. Before this happens, however, the elect are ‘taken away’; everyone else is Left Behind. The difficulty of ‘these things’ happening within a generation is resolved by interpreting the word ‘generation’ as ‘race’ or ‘ethnic group,’ so Jews will still be a recognizable group.

Yet the traditional interpretation offers a solution that is much less forced- Jesus answers the disciples’ questions about two different events, much like the prophets of old did: by grouping them together according to their topic rather than their chronology. A quick review of history confirms those things that were in the immediate future: never were false prophets and messiahs more prevalent and dangerous than in the times surrounding the destruction of the Temple. There were terrible wars, famines, and earthquakes that destroyed entire cities before that event. The disciples were persecuted severely, nearly all of them ended up as martyrs, and the gospel was preached throughout the Roman Empire. The Roman standards were set up on the Temple grounds, yet the troops ‘inexplicably’ retreated, allowing those who were previously warned to escape. The destruction and death in Jerusalem were apocalyptic in nature. And, of course, the Temple was destroyed brick by brick- because it had been set on fire, the Roman Army completely dismantled it to retrieve the gold that had melted in the cracks. The city walls were dug up to the foundations, and Jerusalem was made so desolate that “there was left nothing to make those that came thither believe it had ever been inhabited.”26

To top it all off, all these things happened within a generation- that is, biblically, 40 years. And because the believers were warned ahead of time, according to the historical record, they were spared that tribulation. All of this put together is absolutely remarkable! There is no reason to be embarrassed by this prophecy. The ‘most embarrassing verse’ becomes a faith-building prediction, and because he was so accurate, we know that the Son of Man will come again.

  1. C.S. Lewis, “The World’s Last Night and Other Essays”, 60. ↩︎
  2. Albert Barnes, “Notes, Critical, Illustrative, and Practical”, Matthew 24:3.
    Available online at https://www.sacred-texts.com/bib/cmt/barnes/mat024.htm ↩︎
  3. Barnes, ibid, Introduction to Isaiah. ↩︎
  4. Craig Keener, “The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament”, 106. ↩︎
  5. Fred Miller, “Revelation: A Panorama of the Gospel Age”, 191.
    Available online at http://moellerhaus.com/matt24.htm ↩︎
  6. Flavius Josephus, “Antiquities of the Jews”, 20:2:5.
    Available online at http://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/ant-20.html ↩︎
  7. Barnes, ibid, Matthew 24:7. ↩︎
  8. Mentioned in Barnes, ibid, Matthew 24:7.
    For a detailed resource on earthquakes in this period mentioned by Tacitus and others, see “Catalogue of ancient earthquakes in the Mediterranean area up to the 10th century” by Emanuela Guidoboni, available online at https://deadseaquake.info/pdfs/Catg1.pdf ↩︎
  9. Barnes, ibid, Matthew 24:9. ↩︎
  10. Publius Cornelius Tacitus, “The Annals”, 15:44
    Available online at https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Annals_(Tacitus)/Book_15 ↩︎
  11. Josephus, “The Jewish War”, 2:13:5.
    Available online at https://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/war-2.html ↩︎
  12. Josephus, “War”, 6:5:2. ↩︎
  13. Josephus, “War”, 6:5:2. ↩︎
  14. James Strong, “Strong’s Greek Lexicon (kjv)”, G3625 – oikoumenē.
    Available online at https://www.blueletterbible.org/lexicon/g3625/kjv/tr/0-1/ ↩︎
  15. Josephus, “War”, 2:19. ↩︎
  16. Josephus, “War”, Preface, section 4. ↩︎
  17. Josephus, “War”, 6:9:4. ↩︎
  18. Josephus, “War”, 6:3:3. ↩︎
  19. Josephus, “War”, 6:3:4. ↩︎
  20. Josephus, “War”, 5:11:1. ↩︎
  21. Josephus, “War”, 6:9:3-4. ↩︎
  22. Miller, ibid, 198. ↩︎
  23. Quoted from Miller, ibid, 193. J.B. Lightfoot, “Apostolic Fathers: Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp”, Vol. 1 pg. 438. ↩︎
  24. Eusebius, “Church History”, 3:5:3.
    Available online at https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Nicene_and_Post-Nicene_Fathers:_Series_II/Volume_I/Church_History_of_Eusebius/Book_III/Chapter_5 ↩︎
  25. See Shiao Chong, “What’s Wrong with the Rapture?”
    Available online at https://www.thebanner.org/columns/2022/09/whats-wrong-with-the-rapture ↩︎
  26. Josephus, “War”, 7:1:1. ↩︎