Jesus spoke about the destruction of the temple and his disciples asked him: “Tell us …. when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’ (Matt 24:1-2). Jesus went into a long description of false messiahs, wars, famines, earthquakes, persecution, false prophets, the gospel being preached to the whole world, defiling of the temple, great suffering, signs in the heavens and “the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt 24:30-31). There is a wide range of interpretations of all this which I will divide into three.
1. At one end of the spectrum some say the whole chapter was fulfilled in the 1st century AD, especially in AD70 when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the temple.
– These interpreters see “the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven” as a reference to Daniel 7:13-14 “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.” In other words these interpreters say Jesus is referring to himself not returning to earth (the second coming as normally understood) but as “coming to God to receive vindication and authority.”
– They translate “all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” as “all the tribes of the land will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” and refer it to the mourning only in Israel at the events of AD70.
– They interpret verse 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” as referring to the worldwide growth of the church which followed the destruction of Jerusalem.
– They also interpret verse 14 “this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” as referring to the preaching of the gospel throughout the then known world between AD30 and AD70.
2. At the other end of the spectrum others interpret the chapter as referring only to the Second Coming and the events associated with it, all still future.
3. In between these two opposing views is the interpretation that the chapter refers to both the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70 and to the Second Coming still in the future.
It seems clear to me that this third view is correct for the following reasons:
1. The disciples question was in two parts: firstly, when will the Temple be destroyed and secondly what will be the signs of Jesus coming and of the end of the age. The disciples probably thought both of these events would take place at about the same time. But the end of the age in Jewish thinking was about when the Messiah would come to earth. They did not envisage this taking place in two stages as we now know it will. But it is about the Messiah physically coming to earth not some ‘spiritual’ coming to God in heaven. This would have been in the disciples’ minds.
2. Since the disciples clearly asked when the Temple would be destroyed, some of Jesus’ answer must refer to AD70.
3. The signs of verses 4-13 (false messiahs, wars, famines, earthquakes, persecution, false prophets) continued to happen both before and after AD70. They are probably better called “Reminders” than “Signs” because they keep being repeated. They are now reminders that Jesus will return.
4. However, verses 9-12 seem to use extreme language if they only refer to the period AD30-70: “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other,and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people.Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold” This very much seems to describe a far worse situation than happened between AD30 and AD70.
5. Verse 14: “This gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come,” again seems to go way beyond what happened between AD30 and AD70. There were many more nations in the whole world than were evangelised in that period and “the end” is much more likely to refer to the end of the age when the Messiah comes physically to earth than to the end of the Temple era in AD70.
6. There is no difficulty in applying verses 15-20 to the trauma of AD70 but verses 21-22 say: “For then there will be great distress, unequalled from the beginning of the world until now – and never to be equalled again. ‘If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened.” Are we to understand that the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in AD70 is the worst thing that will ever happen, including to the Jewish people? What about the holocaust of 6 million Jewish people? What about the massive persecution of Christians, including today? Again, the language seems much more likely to refer to some future great trauma.
7. Verses 29 says: “immediately after the distress” the cosmic signs and the Return of Christ take place. Verse 30 can really only refer to the Return of Christ because it says that the people mourn because “they see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven.” This event is a visible event not some ‘spiritual’ coming to God in heaven.
HOW THEN DO WE UNDERSTAND VERSE 34 (cf. Mark 13:30; Luke 21:32) ?
In verse 34 Jesus says: “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” This seems to say that all that Jesus had foretold would happen in the first generation – between AD30 and AD70. Some people have translated the word “generation” as “race” meaning this “race” – the Jewish people – will not pass away until all is fulfilled. The word normally refers to the literal present generation and is often described as an evil generation. However, Luke (who quotes the same words from Jesus) probably wrote some 30 years after Jesus died when the ‘present generation’ would have been ‘passing away’ so it is unlikely he would have understood the current generation to be meant by the term ‘this generation.’ Is Jesus therefore referring to the generation that experiences the beginning of the late (non-recurring) signs of the Return of Christ and saying all the great events including the Return itself will happen within one generation?
One thing is clear: there are more difficulties in trying to make Matthew 24 only refer to the events leading up to AD70 than in taking the word “generation” either to mean “race” or to refer to this final (future) generation.
WHAT IS THE DURATION OF THE GREAT DISTRESS IN VERSES 15-22?
On the face of it, the ‘great distress’ seems to last from the destruction of the Temple in AD70 until the Return of Christ. Five suggestions have been made:
1. Jesus passes from one period of great distress (AD70) to the other (still future).
2. Jesus means the whole period from AD70 until his Return is a time of distress.
3. Jesus follows the ‘telescoping’ or ‘foreshortening’ which is typical of the prophets. Think of climbing a mountain. What looks like a single slope to the top often turns out to hide valleys which have to be crossed. In fact the mountain is a series of lesser peaks separated by valleys, but from the bottom it looks like a single slope to the highest peak. The prophets often see a series of events as a ‘single slope’ but they turn out to be events separated by ‘valleys’ of time. So Jesus may have been viewing the two periods of distress in that way, apparently as one event but actually two, separated by a (very long) valley of time.
4. Jesus means the tribulation starts in AD 66/70 but the main part of it is long postponed – to the still future End Times.
5. Jesus is using his reference to his return in verses 29-31 to symbolise the Fall of Jerusalem (as we have seen, this is unlikely. It seems clear he is referring to his physical return to earth).
In my view suggestions 1 and 3 seem most likely.
 R T France, Matthew, Tyndale New Testament Commentary, IVP, Leicester 1985, p. 344.
© Tony Higton: see conditions for reproduction