In 1998 Robert DeNiro starred in one of his better action movies, a film titled Ronin. It’s about a gang of mercenaries recruited by a shadowy Irish woman to steal a case intact “from several men who will be intent on preventing us.” The small team seems to be comprised of ex-military and espionage types. At one point, the team settles on a proposed ambush site. They’ve surveilled the target, mapped the area, the routes, and have a good idea of what they’re going to do. DeNiro’s character stares at a map, a cup of coffee in his hand, scowling. “The map, the map, the map …” he mutters. “The map is not the territory.”
He puts the coffee down, grabs his car keys, and decides to walk around the target’s hotel. He’s tired of talking about the route, the hotel, the target. He wants to see the ground for himself. And see it he does. It’s fair to say that Ronin features some of the best car chase scenes in movie history.
My point is that while it does some good to talk about passages like Matthew 24, there is no substitute to working through it yourself—to seeing it. The map is not the territory. At some point, you have to grab the keys and drive out to see the ground for yourself. Still, we have to map the issue a little bit, so we’ll talk about the passage before we dive into it.
This is a series of articles on what Jesus meant in Matthew 24. You can read the entire essay as a single unit here. This is the first of the series, providing an introduction to the chapter and vv. 1-3. You can also read the article on Matthew 24:4-14.
Matthew 24 is a hard passage. One Baptist theologian suggested it was “the most difficult problem in the Synoptic Gospels.” So, don’t be discouraged if it seems like there’s a lot here—there is! But, if we can capture at least the broad sweep of Jesus’ message here (the details would be nice, too!), and the main thing He wants us to do with this information, then we’ll be in good shape.
Lots of people write lots of material on prophecy. Some of it is irresponsible, much of it is too dogmatic, and a whole lot of it is click-bait. It misses the “so what” at the expense of the allegedly sensational. At the congregation where I’m a pastor, I once discovered an old book in the church library in which the author declared that Saddam Hussein was re-building Babylon, hinted Hussein might be the Antichrist, and strongly suggested this event was therefore a sign of the end (cf. Rev 17-18). Of course, Saddam Hussein never recovered from the first Gulf War, he did not re-build Babylon, he was not the Antichrist (unless he springs to life sometime in the future), and the book is now an embarrassment.
We can do better.
There are three general approaches to this passage that you’ll need to understand. It’s almost impossible to come to Matthew 24 as an impartial, blank slate—what you’ve decided about other passages will effect what you do with this passage. This means each of the three perspectives brings very different presuppositions to the table. It’s hard to not fall into the familiar rut of adopting the system with which you’re most familiar, dusting your hands off, and calling it a day. We should try our best to not do that!
Three Different Grids for Understanding Matthew 24
Here are the three different interpretive grids. I intend these descriptions to be broadly representative—not precise descriptions:
- The first option is to say Matthew 24 is about the great tribulation, and only the great tribulation. Everything here is about the Jewish people struggling against Antichrist in the age to come. The Church is not here, because God raptured the Church away before the tribulation began. It must be this way, because the great tribulation is “a time of trouble for Jacob” (Jer 30:7)—that is, for the Jewish people specifically. The Church has nothing to do with the tribulation, so Matthew 24 is not directly applicable. However, we can glean principles to apply to this Church age. This view relies heavily on the assumption that Israel and the Church are two distinct peoples of God, on parallel but separate tracks.
- Another view is that most or all of this passage is about the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Some believe Matthew 24:29-31 is not about Jesus’ second advent at all—it simply quotes the prophet Daniel and shows us Jesus being enthroned after His ascension. This perspective tends to minimize data which suggests Jesus’ second coming and maximize all references to Jerusalem during the Roman siege of the city from AD 66-70.
- The third position is that the passage largely operates on two levels at once—(1) it’s basically about the siege and capture of Jerusalem in AD 66-70, but (2) those awful events prefigure and foreshadow the great tribulation during some unknown future time. This perspective tries to have it both ways, because it sees Jesus as often speaking about two things at once.
I believe the third grid presents the fewest problems, is the best explanation for the evidence, and best comports with the rest of Scripture.
How to Weigh the Evidence? Rules of Affinity to the Rescue
The scriptures are the supreme or highest channel of religious authority; the “supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and opinions should be tried.” This means that, while tradition, reason, and experience are important, they are not the final court of appeal. That means we need to pay attention to what Scripture says.
I’ve been an investigator for 20 years, in both Federal and State contexts. I’ve done both criminal and regulatory investigations. You may substantiate two cases, all while knowing one has better evidence than the other. It’s the same with Scripture—there are degrees of certainty based on the weight of evidence. An acquaintance of mine, Dr. Paul Henebury, has developed a system which he titled “rules of affinity” to explain how we can weigh probability of evidence in Scripture. If we can correctly assign evidence a probative value, then we’ll know how dearly we ought to cling to a certain doctrine.
What’s the point?
The point is that when you come to Matthew 24, you likely arrive with preconceived ideas about what Jesus is saying. Maybe you’re right. Maybe you aren’t right. Be willing to fairly weigh the evidence, assign it a category from the rules of affinity chart, and adjust your “passion level” for your preferred interpretation accordingly. If you won’t do that, then you’ve already made up your mind and are simply after confirmation that you’re “right.” That’s the opposite of truth.
Here is a short slide deck which is largely inspired by Henebury’s scheme—the examples are not his (I suspect he would disagree with some of them!).
Are we willing to weigh the evidence fairly? Remember this chart in future articles as we work our way through Matthew 24.
Some Tricky Issues
There are five key issues in Matthew 24 which need an answer. Most people will provide an answer which fits with their preferred “grid” for understanding the passage. Here are the issues, along with my answers. Justification and support for my positions will come in the commentary itself—you’ll have to wait!
- Abomination of desolation—what is it? Jesus mentions this at Matthew 24:15. I believe it refers to the Roman army besieging Jerusalem from AD 66-70, which prefigures the great tribulation when the Antichrist will desecrate a holy space in Jerusalem at some future date.
- “Let the reader understand”—what does this mean? This is also at Matthew 24:15. I believe it’s Jesus remark (not Matthew’s) which directs folks who read the prophet Daniel to pay close attention to the specific events which will come within the generation that was alive when Jesus spoke.
- “[G]reat distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now”—what is this? Jesus mentions this phrase at Matthew 24:21. I believe it refers to both (1) Jerusalem’s destruction by the Romans, which squares with Jesus’ announcement of the temple’s destruction that started the entire conversation (Mt 24:1-2), and (2) the Antichrist’s brief reign as the ruler of the kingdom of darkness (Rev 13), later depicted by the Apostle John as Babylon (Rev 17-18). There is both a near and far fulfillment.
- The coming of the Son of Man—when will it happen? Jesus describes this at Matthew 24:29-31. It refers to his second advent, a single-stage event wherein He returns at the end of the great tribulation to gather his elect (both alive and dead) from the four corners of the earth, destroy Babylon and establish His kingdom (Rev 19).
- “[T]his generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened—to what is Jesus referring? He’s talking about the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, which means Jesus is referring here to Matthew 24:4-26 (or possibly up to v. 28)—He isn’t talking about vv. 29-31 at all. “This generation,” then, is referring to people alive in Jesus’ day who will still be around to see the Romans destroy the temple.
One other issue that piques curiosity is the timing of the rapture—when will believers be snatched up to meet the Lord? (Mt 24:31; cp. 1 Thess 4:13-18)? I believe this passage suggests a post-tribulational rapture, and that the Apostle Paul refers to this passage when he describes that same event in 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 (“according to the Lord’s word,” 1 Thess 4:15). This is a relatively unimportant issue, but I note it here because Christians often want to know about it.
Outline of the Passage
Here is an outline of the passage as I understand it.
Here is my attempt to depict the passage in graphic form, especially the foreshadowing aspect and Jesus’ focus shifting between the near (the Romans destroying Jerusalem) and the far (Antichrist and the great tribulation).
Now, at long last, because the map is not the territory, let’s get to Matthew 24.
Mic Drop in Jerusalem (vv. 1-3)
Our passage opens when Jesus has just finished his jeremiad against the Pharisees (Mt 23). He capped it all with the pronouncement, “your house is left to you desolate!” (Mt 23:38). This could refer to Israel, to the temple itself, or to Jerusalem as the symbol of God’s place on earth. It’s probably a general reference encompassing lots of things, basically meaning “things as they are are gonna change.” Jesus then turns on His heels and walks away. This is likely Tuesday of Passover week, and Jesus never enters the temple again.
Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down (Matthew 24:1-2).
We can imagine the disciples staring at the Pharisees, an unbearable tension filling the silence. They then hurry after Jesus, anxious to escape this awkward situation. They believe Jesus is referring to the temple complex itself, which is a huge structure. It was the size of several football fields, a massive feat of engineering. Herod the Great expanded the temple which the exiles rebuilt upon their return from captivity. He expanded the site by erecting massive retaining walls, filling them in to create an artificial plateau. He then added numerous exterior courtyards and other odds and ends, with the original temple at the center. This ambitious project was underway for nearly 80 years. It was finished shortly before the Romans sacked the city in AD 70.
How could this structure be left desolate? So, they call Jesus’ attention to the buildings—just look at them! Desolate? Deserted? Really? Jesus tells them the whole things would be rubble one day. That wasn’t what they were expecting to hear!
This is a great time for some clarification.
As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”Matthew 24:3
The disciples have two questions; (1) when will the temple be destroyed, and (2) what will be the sign that lets us know? The “sign of your coming and of the end of the age” is actually one question, not two—the disciples assume they are the same event. They seem to assume the two events will happen at roughly same time—the temple will be destroyed, and Jesus will return.
These two simple questions, uttered on the Mount of Olives as they stared across the Kidron Valley at the temple complex, is the impetus for one of Jesus’ most sweeping descriptions of history. He begins to answer their questions in v. 4-14, which we’ll examine in the next article.
 I know this phrase did not originate with the movie Ronin, but work with me here, please …
 A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman, 1933), Mt 24:3. A.B. Bruce notes, “This chapter and its synoptical parallels (Mk. xiii., Lk. xxi.) present, in many respects, the most difficult problem in the evangelic records,” (“The Synoptic Gospels,” in Expositor’s Greek Testament, 6th ed., vol. 1 (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1910), p. 287).
 Charles Dyer and Angela Hunt, Rise of Babylon: Sign of the End Times (Carol Stream: Tyndale House, 1991). See also Peter Steinfels, “Gulf War Proving Bountiful For Some Prophets of Doom,” NYTimes. 02 February 1991, pp. 1, 10. https://nyti.ms/3KTVeCm.
 The answer to “when shall Christ return?” is “so comprehensive a question that each theory is in fact an entire eschatological scheme, complete with detailed exegesis and sweeping synthesis,” (D.A. Carson, Matthew, in Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), p. 490).
 See John Walvoord, The Rapture Question, revised and enlarged (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979), pp. 42-44.
 For a representative view of this perspective, see John Walvoord, Thy Kingdom Come: A Commentary on the First Gospel (Chicago: Moody, 1974; reprint; Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1998).
 R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, in NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), pp. 920f.
 An anonymous patristic author noted, “We never saw the destruction of the temple, nor did they see the end of the age. It was expedient therefore that they hear about the signs of the temple’s destruction and that we learn to recognize the signs of the world’s consummation,” (Manlio Simonetti (ed.), Matthew 14-28, vol. 1b, in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove: IVP, 2014), p. 188).
A 19th century Baptist theologian agreed and wrote, “But if the destruction of Jerusalem was itself in one sense a coming of the Lord, why may we not suppose that the transition from this to the final coming is gradual? Then much in 24:3-36 may be taken as referring both to the former and the latter topic, while some of the expressions may refer exclusively to the one or the other,” (John Broadus, Commentary on Matthew, in American Commentary(Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1886), p. 480). William Hendriksen said, “Our Lord predicts the city’s approaching catastrophe as a type of the tribulation at the end of the dispensation,” (Matthew, in New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1973), pp. 846-847).
Perhaps the foremost Greek scholar of the 20th century, a Baptist named A.T. Robertson, suggested “It is sufficient for our purpose to think of Jesus as using the destruction of the temple and of Jerusalem which did happen in that generation in A.D. 70, as also a symbol of his own second coming and of the end of the world or consummation of the age,” (Word Pictures, Mt 24:3).
 See James Leo Garrett Jr., Systematic Theology: Biblical, Historical, and Evangelical, 4th ed., vol. 1 (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2014), pp. 206-209.
 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith, Article 1—On the Scriptures, in Phillip Schaff (ed.), The Creeds of Christendom, vol. 3 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1882), p. 742).
 See Paul Henebury, “The ‘Rules of Affinity’ Simplified.” 27 July 2021. https://drreluctant.wordpress.com/2021/07/27/the-rules-of-affinity-simplified-repost/.
 Broadus, Matthew, p. 479.
 An famous 3rd-century Egyptian Christian scholar named Origen suggested that the physical temple had to be destroyed so the mystical temple of holy Scripture could be erected to take its place as the locus of authority. This will preach, but it isn’t what Jesus is saying! (Simonetti, Matthew 14-28, in ACCS, pp. 186-187).
 πότε (at what time) ταῦτα ἔσται (will this happen?) καὶ τί τὸ σημεῖον τῆς σῆς παρουσίας (and what will be the sign of your advent) καὶ (and—the singular “sign” comprises two events which occur at the same time) συντελείας τοῦ αἰῶνος (the end of the age?).
See also Chrysostom, “Homily 75,” in NPNF 1:10, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. George Prevost and M. B. Riddle (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), p. 450.