Every Christian believes that the Lord Jesus’s return is imminent, meaning the return of the Lord Jesus could happen at any time and any moment. Paul calls this in Titus 2:13, “waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.”
Knowing the Lord could come back today causes some to stop what they are doing and only wait for Him. Yet, there is a difference between knowing Jesus could return today and knowing He will return today. In Matthew 24:36, Jesus says, “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” The timing of the Lord Jesus’ return is something the Lord has not revealed to anyone, so until He calls His own to Himself, they should continue to serve Him faithfully.
The context of Matthew 24:24 finds itself in a section running from Matthew 24:1-25:46 discussing what is known as the Olivet Discourse, so named because Jesus “sat on the Mount of Olives” (Matthew 24:3) when He spoke these words. The Olivet Discourse is the fifth of Jesus’ five major discourses recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. Addressed to his disciples, the Olivet Discourse is intended to give them a prophetic overview of the events to transpire in both the near and distant future.
What Are “Signs and Wonders”?
Matthew 24:5-8 gives us some important clues for discerning the approach of the end times. An increase in false messiahs, an increase in warfare, and increases in famines, plagues, and natural disasters—these are signs of the end times.
In this passage, though, we are given a warning: we are not to be deceived because these events are only the beginning of birth pains; the end is still to come. The last days are described as “perilous times” because of the increasingly evil character of man and people who actively “oppose the truth” (2 Timothy 3:1-9; 2 Thessalonians 2:3).
Photo credit: Unsplash/Austin Chan
How Can We Know Something Is a Sign?
As soon as Jesus returns to Israel’s territory, opposition from Jewish leaders resurfaces (Matthew 16:1 ESV). The Pharisees and Sadducees were rival groups of leaders, so this is an unusual grouping. Here they operate together for two reasons. First, they are the two main groups of the Sanhedrin, the ruling Jewish council (Acts 23:6). Second, they are united by a common opposition to Jesus. They think that the enemy of their enemy is their friend (Luke 23:12).
The leaders’ quest for a sign is misguided. Matthew hints that the request for a sign is insincere. Yet Jesus has already performed an abundance of signs, and they never believed. As soon as possible, Jesus leaves their territory again, to escape them (Matthew 16:4).
But before Jesus departs, he commends the Pharisees and Sadducees for their ability to read the signs of the weather: a red sky in the evening signified good weather; in the morning, a red sky, plus clouds, meant just the opposite. How sad, then, that they could read the weather but could not read the signs of great events taking place in their times (Matthew 16:2–3). As religious leaders, they, above all, should know that God had visited his people, had sent the long-expected Jesus. A wicked generation cannot read the signs. The proof that they cannot interpret the signs is that they immediately ask for a sign after Jesus gives a sign!
Their spiritual blindness keeps them from seeing Jesus. As long as they refuse to see Jesus, they remain blind (Luke 13:34–35). Jesus then compared himself to Jonah (Matt. 16:4). Jonah, you recall, did not perform signs; he was the sign. Thrown overboard into a raging sea, swallowed by a great fish, spat out on dry ground, then preaching to great effect to the Assyrians of Nineveh, the very life of Jonah was the sign. The mere presence of a Jewish prophet in a hostile city was a sign. So too with Jesus. The leaders do not need signs by Jesus; they need to see Jesus. His presence, his life, is God’s greatest sign, then and now.
The Jewish leaders needed to add faith to the words and deeds of Jesus (Heb. 4:2). Then they would see him. So it is to this day. The quest for signs is wise if we are willing to see and to believe. But we must be willing to discern God’s work. We must be willing to hear the voice of God and to understand the signs, the nature, of the times.
Seeing with a Dual Perspective
We must know our times, and we must know the times and their signs. Above all, we must know that Jesus both transcends all times and gave the most important signs of all time. His miracles—his signs—showed his compassion, his generosity, his love for all. In our time, let us be faithful to him personally and let us faithfully strive to convey his truth to our age.
Jesus knew that, “When will the world end?” often leads people into unwise and unhealthy speculation, so immediately he clarified what he was saying. His answer in Luke 21 addresses both the more immediate question of the destruction of the temple and the bigger question of the world’s end. This dual perspective was necessary because what Jesus said about the temple made people think about the final judgment, and Jesus wanted to put both events into their proper perspective.
Studying Luke 21 is a little bit like wearing bifocals. The destruction of the temple is near at hand. Many of the prophecies in this chapter deal with specific events that happened before and during the fall of Jerusalem in a.d. 70. Yet, the end of the world is always in the background, and we continuously need to keep it in our gaze. The destruction of the temple is a portent of the final judgment; it is the beginning of the end. So Jesus extends the discussion from the destruction of the temple to the end of the world. Looking beyond his first coming to his second coming, he uses the messianic and apocalyptic language that the Old Testament prophets used when they talked about the great and terrible day of the Lord.
Here in Luke 21, the immediate historical context is the time leading up to and including Jerusalem’s fall. Thus the commands of Jesus apply most directly to the disciples who lived through those terrible days. However, the backdrop to that historical act of divine judgment is the judgment that is still to come. Therefore, the exhortations in Luke 21 also apply to us now and in the future as we face various trials and tribulations before the second coming of Jesus Christ.
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Javier Art Photography
Should We Be Looking for Signs of the End Times?
The disciples asked Jesus to explain whether we should look for signs or not (Matthew 24:3). We must understand this inquiry correctly. “When will this happen?” means “When will Jerusalem fall and the temple be destroyed?” The disciples thought they were asking one question; the fall of Jerusalem, the coming of Christ, and the end of the age were essentially one event in their minds.
Whatever the disciples intended, Jesus heard and answered two questions, one at a time. The first part of his reply predicts events that will take place in “this generation” (Matthew 24:34), that is, within forty years—the lifetime of the disciples. Jesus’ purpose for this element of his reply is practical. He wants the disciples to be prepared—rather than shocked or alarmed—for the troubles, they will see in their generation. Those troubles are not signs of the end; therefore, the disciples must be ready to “stand firm to the end” in hard times (Matthew 24:13; cf. 24:6, 8).
Jesus begins his reply with a warning: “Watch out that no one deceives you” (24:4). During their days, there will be events that look like the final cataclysm, but there will be no mistake then. When Jesus returns, all the nations will see him, for he will come with angels and trumpets, power and glory.
The disciples do need to watch for signs of the fall of Jerusalem. That sequence will be necessary. We notice that the word “then” starts to appear: Then you will face persecution (24:9). Then many will renounce the faith (24:10). Then, when Jerusalem is attacked, the disciples should “flee to the mountains” (24:16).
In Matthew 24:36, Jesus begins to answer the second question and answers it. “That day” is commonly a technical term, roughly like the term “the Super Bowl” in American football. Similarly, the people of Israel knew “that day” meant the last day, the judgment day (Matt. 7:22; Luke 10:12; 2 Tim. 4:8). “That day” is the last day, the end of the world as we know it.
To interpret Matthew 24 correctly, we must ascertain where Jesus stops answering the first question and starts answering the second. Jesus finishes answering the question about the destruction of the temple at 24:34–36. Jesus’ prophecy of troubles in his generation has all the authority of God and his word. It would be easier for the universe to disintegrate than for Jesus’ prophecy to fail; “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (24:35).
All that Jesus foretold did occur—at least provisionally—within a generation. The switch to the last day occurs in 24:36, “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” So then, Jesus promised that certain things would happen in that generation, and they did happen in that generation.
Nonetheless, as often happens with prophecies, some of Jesus’ prophecies point beyond his generation. Prophecy often has a double fulfillment. Jesus’ word was fulfilled in his generation, as he said. He staked his reputation on it, yet there was more to come.
Notice that the disciples ask questions about timing. They want to know, “When will these things be?” They want to know what sign signifies that the end is near. But Jesus does not reply with a when—a set of dates or signs—but with a what and a how. He tells us what sorts of things are coming and how to prepare for them. In that way, he prepares us to stand firm in the storm and to stand ready to meet him when he returns.
Awaiting His Return
In 2 Timothy 4:8, Paul is facing his impending execution with joy, knowing that “a crown of righteousness” awaits him in the presence of the Lord. Now he is not referring here to being saved by good works but only by the righteousness of Jesus (Galatians 2:15-16). Once a person has been justified by faith alone, they will do good works that the Lord will reward in the life to come, although such works do not earn anyone a place in the kingdom of heaven. Though every saint-sinner is imperfect, the Lord will reward each Christian a crown for the good works they have done because they have loved the appearing of the Lord Jesus (2 Timothy 4:8).
Matthew Henry is right, “It is the character of all the saints that they long for the appearing of Jesus Christ: they love his second appearing at the great day; love it, and long for it.” It is very easy to become content with the comforts and material success of love. A love for the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus motivates every Christian to do good works that will gain an everlasting reward.
Photo credit: Unsplash/Brendan Church
Dave Jenkins is the Executive Director of Servants of Grace Ministries, the Executive Editor of Theology for Life Magazine, and the Host of the Equipping You in Grace Podcast and Warriors of Grace Podcast. He received his MAR and M.Div. through Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary. You can follow him on Twitter at @davejjenkins, find him on Facebook at Dave Jenkins SOG, Instagram, read more of his writing at Servants of Grace, or sign to receive his newsletter. When Dave isn’t busy with ministry, he loves spending time with his wife, Sarah, reading the latest from Christian publishers, the Reformers, and the Puritans, playing golf, watching movies, sports, and spending time with his family.
This article is part of our larger End Times Resource Library. Learn more about the rapture, the anti-christ, bible prophecy and the tribulation with articles that explain Biblical truths. You do not need to fear or worry about the future!
Seven Churches of Revelation
New Heaven and New Earth
Who Are the 144,000?
Listen to our podcast, The Bible Never Said That. All of our episodes are available at LifeAudio.com.