In our first article, we showed that when Jesus said “this generation will not pass away before all these things take place” he meant the people living in his day - his contemporaries. We considered other interpretations of the phrase “this generation” and saw that they come up lacking. We have to wrestle honestly with this fact.
In this article, we will consider what “end” was Jesus and his disciples talking about? When Jesus says the “Last Days” - we should ask, “the last days of what?” Many Christians today assume that they were talking about the end of the world - that is the events leading up to the end of temporal existence and the ushering in of the eternal state. However, although this understanding is popular, is it actually what is being taught here?
I hope that in these articles we can consider how sometimes the framework we assume affects what we can see in a text. But, as we challenge those preconceptions by taking a fresh look, sometimes we're able to see more clearly what was there all along. So, if you're someone who has always understood this passage as speaking of something in the future, I'd encourage you to just entertain for a minute the consideration that there may be another way to look at it. As you do this, I think you'll begin to see how this interpretation is a more natural reading of the text.
The End of the Age (v.3)
As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:3)
An important detail to note about the disciples’ question in Matthew 24:3 is that they did not ask Jesus when the end of the world (Greek: κόσμος) was going to occur. They asked what was the sign of the end of the age (Greek: αἰών). This confusion is not helped by the fact that the popular King James Version wrongly renders the word αἰών as “world” in this verse (as well as other places - e.g. Matt. 13:39-40 KJV) when it should be translated as “age”. Even some modern translations such as the ESV and NIV sometimes translated αἰών as “world” instead of “age”. This imprecise translation of this word can cause confusion in several passages and lead people to erroneously think that they refer to the end of the material universe. The word αἰών simply means “a period of time, epoch, or age”.
So, the logical question to ask is, what “age” were the disciples referring to?
What “age” was ending?
The answer is that they were asking about the end of the Jewish age - that is, the Old Testament era under the Mosaic covenant of sacrifices, the temple, rituals, etc. The OT prophecies of the promise of a new and better covenant pointed forward to this and was part of the expectations of every faithful Jew. This is why the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD is so crucial to understanding the significance of what Jesus predicted. Jesus was talking about the Jews of his day in Matthew 24 concerning what judgment would come upon them if they did not repent and believe in him.
As Milton Terry (1898) rightly notes,
“The ruin of the temple was, accordingly, the crisis which marked the end of the pre-Messianic age.” (Milton S. Terry, Biblical Apocalyptics, p. 249)
A Rebuilt Temple?
As Dr. Gary DeMar notes,
“Earlier in His ministry, Jesus pronounced to the religious leaders that His own body was the true temple. The temple of stone was a temporary edifice that pointed to a greater, permanent temple (John 2:19–22). Only after Jesus’ resurrection did the disciples begin to understand that the true and everlasting temple is “the temple of His body” (2:21). The physical temple was designed to be temporary.” (DeMar, Last Days Madness, p. 52)
The physical Jewish Temple along with its sacrifices were supposed to prefigure and foreshadow the work of Christ. Thus, when Christ came and accomplished our redemption, these old covenant figures became obsolete. Therefore, the belief of some and hopes of a rebuilt Third Temple contradict this theological truth. Jesus is the True Temple who fulfills all that it meant, and we (Christian believers), are the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19-20). When the Second Temple was destroyed, it signalled the end of the old age of signs and foreshadows and the inauguration of the new covenant age in Christ. If unbelieving Jews rebuild another Temple to reinstitute Old Testament sacrifices, this will only confirm their rejection of Christ’s atoning blood. To go back to the Temple would be to regress in God’s plan of redemption.
This understanding makes more straightforward sense of our text in Matthew 24. Again, Dr. DeMar’s comments are helpful here:
“Jesus’ disciples would have immediately thought of the temple that they had pointed out to Him, not a temple that had to be rebuilt. To propose that Jesus was describing a rebuilt temple must be proven from Scripture. The New Testament mentions nothing about a rebuilt temple. There is nothing in Matthew 24 that even hints at the rebuilding of the temple. Why would Jesus confuse His listeners and those of us who read His recorded prophecy by leaving out a crucial detail like a rebuilt temple? It does not make sense.” (DeMar, Last Days Madness, p. 94)
Even Dispensationalist writers must admit the fact that there is not one verse in the NT that speaks of a rebuilt Third Temple. For example, as Thomas Ice and Timothy Demy write: “There are no Bible verses that say, ‘There is going to be a third temple.’” (Ice & Demy, The Truth about the Last Days’ Temple, p. 13) The apostle Peter said of the church that, “You also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). Christians are the “living stones” joined together in a living temple (see Eph. 2:19–21; 1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19; 2 Cor. 6:16). The real temple of God is the church with Jesus Christ as the chief cornerstone (1 Peter 2:7). This is why this new edifice is called, “a holy temple in the Lord” (Eph. 2:21). The Old Covenant Temple system was one of planned obsolescence - it was never meant to be permanent. Thus, with the end of the Temple sacrifices because of Christ, the old Temple was done away with to give way to the new and better, more permanent Temple.
The consummation of the old age also signalled the beginning of another one. This was part of the traditional Jewish view about the Messiah based in several OT passages. When the Messiah came, he would inaugurate a new age with a new and better covenant, the Kingdom of Heaven. (Compare for example Jeremiah 31:31-34 and its fulfillment in Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25; 2 Corinthians 3:6; Hebrews 7:22; 8:6-13; 9:15; 10:14-18; 12:24) This is exactly what Jesus declared was happening in Matthew 4:17, “From that time Jesus began to preach saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” When he says it is “at hand”, he means that it is near, close, at the door! Not something far off. Interpretations that ignore this or try to explain these near-time references do injustice to the text. This was an event that Jesus predicted was near to his first-century hearers!
Thus, the coming of the long-awaited Messiah signalled a major transition in redemptive history - the end of the Old Covenant age and the beginning of the new. The events of the New Testament happen during the overlap of these two ages - the passing away of the Old Covenant order and the inauguration of the New Covenant age. It was a period of transition.
This whole section builds to a climax that spans from 21:23-23:39. As commentator R.T. France notes,
"Now, having entered the temple dramatically and controversially in 21:12–16, he leaves it with an equally emphatic and more far-reaching statement about its future. He is abandoning it, never to return, and after that it has no future except to be destroyed. What has been hitherto the earthly focus of the presence of God among his people is so no longer. There is a direct sequence from 23:38: the “house” which is now being left deserted (by God and by Jesus) is ripe for demolition, to make way for “something greater than the temple” (12:6); cf. Mark’s language, surprisingly not taken up by Matthew, of a temple not made by hands to replace the one made by hands (Mark 14:58)." (R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, (NICNT), p. 886)
Jesus is the new and greater Temple that would replace the old one which was just a shadow of that which was to come.
The Time of Visitation | A ‘Coming’ in Judgment
Also associated with the coming of the Messiah was the impending judgment of Israel.
This is why John the Baptist called the nation to repentance and baptism to prepare them for their “visitation” by the Judge of all, the Son of Man. His visitation would be a time of redemption for those who welcomed him and signal a time of judgment for those who rejected him.
In Luke 1:68, Zachariah prophesied concerning the coming of the Messiah and rejoiced that the Lord God of Israel had “visited” his people. The Greek verb used for visited actually corresponds to the noun episcopus - where we get our word “episcopal”. This term is most often translated as “bishop”. In ancient Greek culture, a bishop was not a religious term. It referred to a military officer who would review troops to assess their readiness for battle. If the troops failed their examination by the bishop, there would be severe penalties.
Thus, the “visitation” by the Messiah is also properly understood as a Divine act of “bishoping”. Yahweh incarnate was coming to examine His people’s readiness and if they failed the test, there would be severe repercussions. This also makes sense of some of Jesus’s parables to the Jews in his day about being ready for his coming (but that’s a topic for another article).
The Day of the Lord
This concept of God visiting His people is linked to the Old Testament concept of the coming “Day of the Lord” which occurs several times in OT prophecy.
For example, Malachi 4:1-5 speaks of a coming day of judgment that “I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD.” Note that the day of the Lord is “dreadful” - because those who were unprepared for His visitation would be held accountable. Jesus said that John the Baptist was the Elijah to come (Matt. 11:14) - thus, Malachi 4:5 was fulfilled in his day and Yahweh had come to judge His people. The prophet Amos, rebuking the Jewish people, likewise spoke of the Day of the Lord:
“Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord! Why would you have the day of the Lord? It is darkness, and not light, as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him, or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall, and a serpent bit him. Is not the day of the Lord darkness, and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?” (Amos 5:18-20)
Zephaniah likewise warned that the Day of the Lord is near and is bitter because it is a day of wrath because they have sinned against the Lord (Zeph. 1:7-17). He continues to encourage the Jewish people to repent before the great Day of the Lord (see Zeph. 2:1-3).
Thus, God had sent prophets to His people to warn them to prepare for this visitation. God’s visitation in the coming of the Messiah was to signal a solemn occasion for the Jewish people to be ready to receive him or face judgment by Yahweh. Jesus himself laments that they did not recognize this in Luke 19:39-44 speaking of the coming destruction of the city of Jerusalem “because you did not know the time of your visitation.” In fact, just prior to our present passage, Jesus had pronounced a series of woes against the Jewish religious leaders for their hypocrisy and legalism (Matt. 23:1-33). He ends by explaining that God had sent to them prophets to warn them, but they disregarded and hated them, and so their blood will be upon them (verses 34-36). Then Jesus laments over Jerusalem’s unwillingness to come to him (verses 37-39).
Even out of the people’s own mouths they pronounced judgment upon themselves! In Matthew 27 after the Roman governor, Pilate had found Jesus innocent, the crowds demanded his crucifixion. Pilate washes his hands of the matter and hands Jesus over to them to be crucified. “And all the people answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’” (Matt. 27:25) Indeed, that is exactly what would happen. God’s judgment against the unbelieving Jews of that generation would soon fall.
The Early Church Historian, Eusebius (c.260-340 AD) also saw Jerusalem’s destruction as an act of Divine judgment and fulfillment of Jesus’s words. He wrote,
“that from that time seditions and wars and mischievous plots followed each other in quick succession, and never ceased in the city and in all Judea until finally the siege of Vespasian overwhelmed them. Thus the divine vengeance overtook the Jews for the crimes which they dared to commit against Christ. ” (Eusebius, Church History, 2:6)
Therefore, the coming that Jesus speaks of in Matthew 24 is not the Parousia (the Final Coming of Christ at the Consummation of Time) but rather is his coming in judgment upon the unbelieving Jews in Jerusalem. This is what was to mark the end of the Old Covenant age.
The Nearness of the End of the Age
John the Baptist also proclaimed that the time was drawing near. He also said, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2). John continued to preach to the Jews:
“Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:10-12)
R.C. Sproul comments on these verses,
“The image of the axe does not indicate that the woodsman is merely thinking about cutting down a tree or that he has merely begun the task by striking at the outer bark. The image instead is that the task is nearly complete. The axe has already penetrated to the core of the tree, hinting that one more decisive stroke will make it fall. The fan refers to the winnowing fork used by a farmer to separate the wheat from the chaff. The farmer is not heading to his barn to get the fan. It is already in his hand and he is about to begin winnowing.” (Sproul, Last Days According to Jesus, p.23)
Jesus himself told his disciples directly in Matthew 10:22-23 that they would not finish going through all the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes (in judgment). Are we really to believe that 2000 years later his disciples still haven’t gone through all the cities of Israel? Clearly, Jesus saw his coming in judgment upon the unbelieving Jews in Jerusalem as near. He even told the Jews straightforwardly in Matthew 21:40-43 that the kingdom of God would be taken away from them and given to a people producing its fruit.
Thus, in Jesus’ day - as the coming Messiah - judgment upon the Jewish people was imminent. If they received Christ, they would have found redemption and blessing. However, because they rejected him, judgment and condemnation awaited them. Although some Jews followed Jesus, the vast majority of them rejected their Messiah and so heaped up condemnation upon their heads.
A New Testament Expectation
This coming judgment on the unbelieving Jews was the expectation of the first-century church which was often persecuted by the Jews. There are many other NT passages that emphasize this near, expected coming judgment of Christ in the first century which would mark the end of the Old Covenant age. Here are a few:
Romans 13:11-12 reassures believers that their “salvation is nearer than when we first believed” and that “the night is almost gone and the Day is at hand”.
1 Corinthians 10:11 says that what happened to Israel was an example and “written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” - which is a direct reference to the end of the Jewish age.
Paul in Philippians 4:5 reminds believers that “the Lord is near”.
In 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16, Paul emphasized that the imminent judgment would be poured out upon “the Jews, who both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out. They are not pleasing to God, but hostile to all men, hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved; with the result that they always fill up the measure of their sins. But wrath has come upon them to the uttermost.”
In 1 Peter 1:20-21 he writes that Christ “has appeared in these last times” and encourages believers to sobriety and prayer because “the end of all things is at hand” (1 Peter 4:7).
In Hebrews 1:2 it says that God, “has in these last days spoken to us in His Son” (Heb. 1:2) - obviously, they were already in the last days at the time of the writing of this letter. The author goes on to show that, “now once at the end of the ages he [Jesus] has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb. 9:26). They were already at the end of the ages!
James 5:8-9 encourages believers in his day to be patient because “the coming of the Lord is at hand” and that “the Judge is standing right at the door”.
1 John 2:18 says that “it is the last hour” in his day and in the book of Revelation he repeatedly emphasized that he was writing about “the things which must shortly take place” (Rev. 1:1), “for the time is near” (Rev. 1:3 & 22:10), and again, “the things which must shortly take place” (Rev. 22:6). In Revelation, Jesus himself repeatedly says that he is “coming quickly” (Rev. 3:11, 22:7, 12, 20).
If the NT writers were meaning to communicate about events far off in the future, they sure chose unusual words to say it! If we take the plain meaning of these texts to their original audience seriously, it would seem that for the Christians in the first century, the end of the ages had come, was close at hand, and the event of judgment on unfaithful Israel was near because the Judge was right at the doors. It seems like all the NT writers made it a point to remind and warn the believers they wrote to of the expected and soon coming judgment of Christ because he had clearly instructed them about it.
Early Church Testimony
There are also early church writers who attest to this. Ignatius of Antioch (died c.110 AD), in his Epistle to the Magnesians we read: “It is absurd to speak of Jesus Christ with the tongue, and to cherish in the mind a Judaism which has now come to an end.” Here, he clearly sees the Old age of Judaism has come to an end with the destruction of the Temple.
Justin Martyr (c. 147 AD) in his First Apology in chapter 53 writes:
“For with what reason should we believe of a crucified man that He is the first-born of the unbegotten God, and Himself will pass judgment on the whole human race, unless we had found testimonies concerning Him published before He came and was born as man, and unless we saw that things had happened accordingly - the devastation of the land of the Jews.”
Here, Justin is using the fact that the Temple was actually destroyed as Jesus had said in Matthew 24 as an apologetic to prove the truth of Christianity.
Hegesippus (A.D. 170-175), tying the persecution of the apostle James to the destruction of Jerusalem writes in his commentary on Acts:
“And so he suffered martyrdom; and they buried him on the spot, and the pillar erected to his memory still remains, close by the temple. This man was a true witness to both Jews and Greeks that Jesus is the Christ. And shortly after that Vespasian besieged Judaea, taking them captive.”
Hegesippus here records that the apostle James was a faithful witness trying to convince both Jews and Gentiles that Jesus was the promised Messiah and to put their faith in him prior to Jerusalem’s destruction. James’s urgency (and that of the other apostles) was spurred on by the fact that they knew what Christ had predicted. Thus he said that “the Judge is standing at the door.” (James 5:9)
There are other early church writers who likewise give testimony which we will cite in future articles as we continue to examine this passage. But I hope this is a good sampling to show that this is not some novel belief, but one rooted in history and the early believers. It will become evident as we continue in this series that it is actually the Dispensational and futurist interpretation that is novel.
The Exegetical Necessity of First Century Fulfillment
So to recap: We saw in our first article that Jesus says that “all these things”, referring to everything he predicted prior in Matthew 24:4-31, must take place before the people in his day died. Jesus repeated this at the beginning of this discourse (Matt. 23:36) and at the end (Matt. 24:34), forming bookends to emphasize this point. This would be within a generation which is typically understood to be about 40 years. His prediction would have been said around 30-33 AD, so the destruction of Jerusalem falls exactly within the timeframe of a generation. Exegetically, when we examine the text, there is no way to get around this interpretation. So, if everything Jesus predicted in this passage did not actually happen in that generation in the first century, it makes him a false prophet. As you can see - this is no small matter!
So far, I’ve set up the argument that Jesus’s predictions in Matthew 24 had to have been fulfilled in the first century and Jesus did “visit” the Jews in Jerusalem in judgment. For many of you, that may seem problematic. How is it that such apocalyptic language in Matthew 24 describing such seemingly worldwide terrible cataclysms could possibly have already happened?
On the surface, it can seem difficult to make sense of. However, in the following articles in this series, we will see clearly that everything that Jesus predicted actually did happen in history just as he said it would. God has preserved a clear record of this to assure us.
In our next article, we will begin to take a look at the fulfillment of some of the signs of the end of the age he predicted.
Click the links below to continue reading in this series.
Articles in this series:
JESUS & THE LAST DAYS | The End of the Age