Signs of Jesus' Coming
Jesus is coming! The Bible is crystal clear about that. When is He coming? What signs will precede Him? The Bible is just as clear about that. We do not know the time and there will be no immediate signs. It will be a surprise, like a thief. Nevertheless, pulpits overflow with dire warnings about “signs of the times” and the imminence of Jesus’ return. No text is more abused on this subject than Jesus’ discourse recorded in Matthew 24.
In the last week of His public ministry, Jesus announced God’s rejection of Israel as His people. Why? Their longtime rebellion against Him was now climaxing in their rejection of His Son (Matthew 21:43-46). The Jewish leaders’ subsequent efforts to entrap Jesus (Matthew 22) only confirmed their prejudice against Him. In view of that, the Lord warned that the guilt of the nation from the fathers to the present was about to come on this generation (Matthew 23:29-36). He wanted to save them, but they would not have it; therefore, their house would be left desolate (vv. 37-38).
The Disciples’ Question
Hearing Jesus forecast the ruin of the temple, the disciples asked, “Tell us, when will these things happen, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:3). Did they assume that the destruction of Jerusalem and Jesus’ second coming would be simultaneous? History has certainly proved that was not the case. It is difficult to know exactly what they thought since their expressions coming and end of the age might refer to either event.
Regardless, as Matthew presents this discourse, Jesus answered their question as if two-fold: first, time and signs of the destruction of Jerusalem, then, time and signs of the second coming. The difficulty of the chapter lies in the fact that while two separate events are being described, some of the language could refer to either.
What events would precede the destruction of Jerusalem? The arrival of false Christs, wars, and natural disasters. But these were merely the beginning. Persecution of Christians, a falling away, and false prophets would follow, and the gospel would be preached as a witness [against Israel] to all nations. Then the end would come (vv. 5-14). It should be noted that the New Testament confirms the existence of all these events during the first century!
The sign of impending destruction was to be “the abomination of desolation.” Luke’s account interprets that as Jerusalem surrounded by armies (21:20). At that point it would be time to flee. The Lord said don’t stop for anything and pray that it will not come in winter or on a Sabbath, when travel would be more difficult. He also warned the disciples not to be deceived by false rumors of Him coming to rescue the nation. No, there would be no deliverance this time. Nothing was coming except tribulation (vv. 15-28), and it would be cut short only for the sake of affected Christians.
The destruction of the nation is described in highly figurative expressions, signifying the decay of all glory and prosperity. They are common Old Testament pictures of judgment, used of Babylon (Isaiah13:10), Egypt (Ezekiel 32:7), Israel (Joel 2:30-31; Amos 5:18-20; 8:9), Judah (Zephaniah 1:15), etc. In the Old Testament, God is the one who came on the clouds in judgment (Isaiah 19:1). Jesus emphasizes that He is the one executing this judgment. In effect, it is another claim to deity (see 26:63-65). Coming as He has foretold it, it is “the sign of the Son of Man” (vv. 29-31).
How long would it be before these prophecies came to pass? Jesus said they would happen in that generation (vv. 32-35). And they were certain. Unlike heaven and earth, His words would not pass away. They were fulfilled when the Romans conquered Jerusalem in A.D. 70, just as He foretold.
Those who try to make these events signs of Jesus’ second coming either ignore Jesus’ stated time frame altogether or else try to deal with the problem by arbitrarily redefining the word generation to mean race. But Jesus used generation the same way we do—of people living at the same time (look again at 23:29-36). It would be pointless to say that the Jews would continue until their nation was destroyed.
The Second Coming
Having just used the passing of heaven and earth as a comparison, Jesus now turns to that event, one which will take place at His second coming (2 Peter 3). The language changes abruptly. The disciples could know the time of what He had been discussing (v. 33). Now He describes something to occur at an unknown time (v. 36). There are no signs. Like the flood or like a thief, it will catch people by surprise, coming at an unexpected time (vv. 36-44).
Jesus concluded His discourse with four judgment illustrations: the watchful servant (24:45-51), the ten virgins (25:1-13), the talents (25:14-30), and the sheep and the goats (25:31-46). Each emphasizes readiness for the Lord’s final coming and the judgment it will bring.
Wars, natural disasters, economic woes, and trouble in the Middle East—they have been around for centuries. If the world continues, so will they. Do not be deceived. These things say nothing about how soon Jesus is coming.
The focus of the New Testament is not on when Jesus is coming but our readiness for it, whenever it is. Let that be your focus too. “Be on the alert then, for you do not know the day nor the hour.”