Oh, my! There’s so much speculation and dispute over what Jesus meant in Matthew 24. “Signs of the end” is the label it often gets, inviting curiosity about how the world will end.
Jesus did not believe the world would fall apart in the end. He expected that, despite all the conflict and disasters, the world would reach its goal under his leadership — the end it was designed for.
So, let’s not twist his words to fit the world around us. Learn from those who’ve made that mistake for 2000 years — assuming their generation was the final one, so making it all about them. It’s too easy to centre the world around me, as if the end can come now that I’ve arrived.
My parents heard Jesus’ reference to wars and rumours of wars (24:6) in the century of two world wars. With radio, television, and social media, we hear of famines and earthquakes (24:7). I grew up listening to “evangelists” proclaim these disasters as signs of Jesus’ immanent return. Eventually I realized that their alarmist approach contradicted Jesus’ intention: See that you are not alarmed (24:6).
Jesus’ point was that such disasters (man-made or natural) are NOT signs of the end. He calls them the beginning of something (24:8). Our pain isn’t hopeless; it’s expectant. God knows that our rebellion against his authority increased the severity of our pain, even in the hope of giving birth to a new generation (compare Genesis 3:15-19). So, think of the pain and pressure we experience as an indication that God is bringing something precious to birth (24:8).
Jesus was not giving a lesson on future history, how the world will end. He was explaining how to cope with the present, in view of where God is taking us.
To help us through the present pain to where God is taking the world, Jesus believed we needed to hear two things:
- Don’t give up or turn away when we suffer, see the world in trouble, or hear alternative solutions offered (24:9-12).
- Press on: we will reach the goal (24:13-14).
Alarmists focus on the first point: life is a pain, and the world is a disaster.
Triumphalists only have the second one: God doesn’t want you to suffer, so just believe and receive only the good experiences.
Neither of those one-wheeled carts will take us anywhere. To make the journey, we need both truths: trusting God’s goal, in our present pain.
I mean, Jesus had just explained that he would die for this goal — just like the righteous before him, and God’s servants after him (23:31-39). The gospel isn’t a pain-free ride for us, any more than it was for him.
But his story didn’t end with death and disaster. He was rescued from the grave, and those who keep on following him will be rescued too (24:13).
In his sufferings, Jesus held onto the hope entrusted to him — bringing all nations under God’s reign, the gospel of the kingdom. That’s the goal he was working towards, the end he was expecting (24:14).
How encouraging is that! Does the passage make sense to you from that angle?
Matthew 24:1-14 (my translation, compare NIV)
1 Leaving the temple, Jesus moved on. His disciples came up to draw his attention to the temple buildings. 2 Jesus responded to them by saying, “You see all these, don’t you? I tell you the truth, nothing will be left here. There’s not a stone on top of another that won’t be knocked down.”
3 As he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples approached him privately. “Tell us! When will these things be? What will be the sign that you’ve arrived and the era has finally reached its goal?”
4 In reply Jesus told them, “Watch out that no one misleads you. 5 For many will come with my authority saying, ‘I am the Anointed,’ and they will mislead many. 6 Inevitably, you hear wars and news of wars. Don’t let it alarm you. Those things have to happen, but it isn’t the goal.
7 For nation will be raised up against nation and kingdom against kingdom, and there’ll be famines and earthquakes in places. 8 All these are just the onset of labour pains. 9 Then they’ll hand you over for torture and kill you. Expect to be hated by all the nations because of my authority. 10 Many will be brought down. Many will betray and hate each other.
11 Many pseudo-prophets will be raised up and will mislead many. 12 Because lawlessness is so prolific, many people’s love will wane. 13 But someone who perseveres towards the goal, this one will be rescued. 14 This good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed through the whole world as a decree for all the nations. That’s when the goal will be reached.”