If you’ve read Matthew 24 as a chart of events in our future (a 7-year tribulation, then Jesus turning up in the sky with trumpets etc), you’ll be shocked to hear Jesus telling his disciples that all these things would happen in their generation.
Here’s what he said:
Matthew 24:32-35 (my translation, compare NIV)
32 Learn by comparing the fig tree. When its branch is already becoming supple and the leaves are sprouting, you know that summer is close. 33 Similarly, when you see all these things, you know it’s close, arriving at the doors. 34 I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass on until all these things come to pass. 35 Heaven and earth will pass on, but my words will not fail to come to pass.
How do you handle that?
Solutions that don’t work
I’ve heard people make some creative if desperate moves to deal with what Jesus said here, solutions that don’t solve the problem:
- Solution: The second coming must have happened in that generation (by AD 70).
Problem: That doesn’t match how the rest of the New Testament speaks of our hope. For example, 1 Corinthians says Christ is raised, but our resurrection doesn’t come until everything is under his feet.
- Solution: Maybe generation means “race,” so Jesus meant the Jews would still be around when he returned.
Problem: Linguistically inaccurate. It doesn’t match this context, or any other. That’s not how the word was used.
- Solution: When Jesus said all these things, he didn’t mean all the things in this discourse, only the ones that did happen in the first century (such as the fall of Jerusalem).
Problem: Special pleading. It’s not what he said, and it doesn’t make sense of the fig tree parable at this point of the discourse.
- Solution: They expected Jesus to come back in the first century, but he didn’t. His followers had to adapt to this failure and adjust their expectations.
Problem: There’s a whole stream of scholarship based on this idea, but imagining Jesus as a naïve idealist doesn’t match even this chapter where there’s heaps about pain, persecution, deep distress. The gospel of the kingdom disintegrates if his expectations were misguided.
It’s about the Christ’s kingship
The simplest solution is that Jesus meant what he said.
He wasn’t providing his disciples with signs of the end — a phrase that some have imposed on the text, despite the fact that it’s not there. He was instructing them in the gospel of the kingdom — the good news of his kingship for the world (24:14), the global authority that would be entrusted to him by raising him from the dead (28:18-20).
He wanted them to know that his kingship did not mean the instant cessation of suffering. They would still see man-made and natural suffering (earthquakes and wars), persecution, false messiahs promising other solutions, and great distress as Jerusalem fell and the house that had represented God’s throne in the world was knocked down — much worse than the temporary interruption Daniel warned of (167 BC).
Jesus warned them not to believe rumours about him hiding somewhere (wilderness, storeroom). He warned them not to turn to other messiahs they would hear proclaimed. Regal authority would come to the son of man as a sudden decree of heaven (the sign being his resurrection from the dead). Consequently, the superstars would lose their high places and earth’s people will mourn over how they treated God and his anointed. With authority from heaven and the backing of the angels, the task of the resurrected Christ would be to gather his people from all over the world into God’s reign.
His followers would see all of that starting to happen in their lifetime, like the fig tree pushing out its leaves as a marker that summer is arriving. Jesus did not promise they’d see the entire fig harvest, just the beginning of this new season.
Seeing the change of season
In first-century Palestine, people recognized the seasons in nature. They didn’t have calendars on their smartphones to tell them the date that summer arrived. In fact, their year was less than 365 days, so the seasons did not have consistent dates across their lifetime. They looked forward to figs as summer fruit, and Jesus was partial to figs (21:19).
His point is that it’s not hard to see the seasons changing if you know where to look. The change doesn’t arrive all at once, but you can see the change developing. In the same way, they would see Jesus’ kingship coming to the earth — not by fixing all the problems at once, but as a seasonal change.
There’s a certitude in his kingship. In Old Testament times, many thought of Jerusalem as the eternal city, impregnable because God lived there (Psalm 45:8). It fell to Babylon. Little but rubble greeted the returning exiles, so they recognized the hills as like God’s faithfulness (Psalm 125:2). But for the people of God in the first century, Jesus realized it could feel as if the earth itself had ceased to exist under heaven, as if heaven and earth and the connection between them had gone.
But even if it felt as though heaven and earth had fallen into a cosmic void, Jesus’ promises of the son of man receiving kingship over the earth by heaven’s appointment would remain. Every other kingdom would fail, but not the authority of heaven given to the son of man (24:35).
2000 years later, Jesus’ words are as important for us as they were for them. Can you see the season changing? Can you see the earth coming under his kingship? Do you see the budding kingdom of God?
Don’t be disillusioned that the harvest isn’t complete yet, that his kingdom is not yet fully here. Don’t lose heart when you hear of military coups, or countries building islands in the sea to extend their territorial claims, or presidents being impeached, or religious persecution, or any of the expressions of oppression and evil that are inherent to a world where people resist God’s authority and take power over each other.
All these things will be replaced as Jesus calls the world under his authority. They aren’t instantly removed, because that isn’t how he exercises the authority heaven has given him. So let’s celebrate the stories of people who do recognize his kingship and serve him as king. Not sure how to do that? Read the Book of Acts. With a third of the world’s population acknowledging Jesus as Lord, we have more stories to tell than they did back then.
We live in an era when communications make it possible for the world to hear the bad news of people abusing each other, including some who dishonour Christ’s name by abusing his people. Part of the church’s credibility gap is imbibing the culture of superstars. Instead, we need communities that embody the good news by simply loving each other.
The goal is to be the community of the king, the embodiment of the good-news kingdom God launched when he raised Christ from the dead and gave him authority over the earth (24:12-14).
Can you see it? Look! The buds are already sprouting. The season is arriving. The fruit is developing for the great harvest God intended when he established the earth as his kingdom.
Open Matthew 24:32-35.
What others are saying
John Ortberg, Who Is This Man? The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus. Chapter 1 (Electronic edition). (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012):
On the day after Jesus’ death, it looked as if whatever small mark he left on the world would rapidly disappear. Instead, his impact on human history has been unparalleled. …
Normally when someone dies, their impact on the world immediately begins to recede. … But Jesus inverted this normal human trajectory, as he did so many others. Jesus’ impact was greater a hundred years after his death than during his life; it was greater still after five hundred years; after a thousand years his legacy laid the foundation for much of Europe; after two thousand years he has more followers in more places than ever.
If someone’s legacy will outlast their life, it usually becomes apparent when they die. On the day when Alexander the Great or Caesar Augustus or Napoleon or Socrates or Mohammed died, their reputations were immense. When Jesus died, his tiny failed movement appeared clearly at an end. If there were a kind of “Most Likely to Posthumously Succeed” award given on the day of death to history’s most influential people, Jesus would have come in dead last.
His life and teaching simply drew people to follow him. He made history by starting in a humble place, in a spirit of love and acceptance, and allowing each person space to respond. He deliberately placed himself on a collision course with Rome, where he would have been crushed like a gnat. And he was crushed.
And yet …
Jesus’ vision of life continues to haunt and challenge humanity. His influence has swept over history like the tail of a comet, bringing his inspiration to influence art, science, government, medicine, and education; he has taught humans about dignity, compassion, forgiveness, and hope.
These posts show how Matthew 24 was relevant for the disciples in their generation, because it’s all about kingship of the Christ:
- The end: where are we headed? (Mt 24:1-14)
- The fall of the Jerusalem temple (Mt 24:15-28)
- The tribulation and Jesus’ kingship (Mt 24:9-30)
- Messiahs and their prophets (Mt 24:23-25)
- The coming of the son of man (Mt 24:26-27)
- Shaking the powers (Mt 24:29)
- Coming with the clouds (Mt 24:30)
- Why are the people of earth mourning? (Mt 24:30-31)