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James Montgomery Boice on “The Return of Jesus Christ”

14 Jul

An Exposition of Matthew 24:29–35

TTOTK Matthew 18-28 Boice

“Immediately after the distress of those days ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light;the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’

“At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. 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.

“Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”

I do not think there is any great difficulty understanding what Jesus says in the Olivet Discourse up to verse 28 of chapter 24. He has warned the disciples about disruptive world events that will not be signs of his return, and he has predicted the fall of Jerusalem, which, though an exceptionally traumatic event, would be merely another example of the kind of tragedies that will occur throughout history. But the easy part is over. Now we come to the part of the discourse that has given the most trouble to Bible students and commentators.

Was Jesus Mistaken?

The difficulties mostly have to do with timing. Jesus has spoken of the destruction of Jerusalem, which occurred in a.d. 70 by the Roman armies under the command of Titus. But then he continues, “Immediately after the distress of those days ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken’ ” (v. 29). This could refer to something in the future, but if that is the case, why did Jesus use the word immediately, as in “immediately after the distress of those days”? Immediately should mean close in time to the destruction of Jerusalem. But if these portents are tied to the destruction of Jerusalem, we must admit candidly that they do not seem to have happened.

Nor is that all. The next verses begin “at that time” and go on to describe how the Son of Man will come in the clouds, with power and great glory, accompanied by the blast of a trumpet and the appearance of angels to gather the elect from the far corners of the earth. Again, that could be future. Most people have assumed it is. But if that is the case, why does Jesus say, “at that time”? And if he meant what he said, that he would return at the time of or soon after the destruction of Jerusalem, what he predicted did not happen.

We have a nearly identical problem in verse 33, where Jesus says, “When you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door.” His second coming cannot be the sign of itself. “These things” must refer to things that will precede his return. But what can they be? If they are the tragedies leading up to the fall of Jerusalem, the second coming of the Lord did not follow those events, and Jesus would seem to have been mistaken.

The most apparent and (for some) the worst problem of all is Jesus’ solemn affirmation: “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened” (v. 34). What can “this generation” be but the generation then living? Yet if that is what the words mean, Jesus must have been wrong, since many generations have come and gone since that time and Jesus has still not returned. The acclaimed English philosopher and social critic Bertrand Russell said Jesus’ teaching about his return was one reason why he could not be a Christian. “He certainly thought that his second coming would occur in clouds of glory before the death of all the people who were living at that time,” wrote Russell. But he added, “In that respect, clearly he was not so wise as some other people have been, and he was certainly not superlatively wise.”  (Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian: And Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects, ed. Paul Edwards [New York: Simon & Schuster, 1957], 16–17).

Attempts at a Solution

There are two easy ways to solve these problems, but they have not been accepted by all commentators.

First, we can place all these events together at one point in time and locate that point at the end of history. One advantage of this view is that we can take the time references literally. The fall of Jerusalem, the signs in the sky, and the return of Jesus occur in tight chronological sequence. All are yet future, and the fall of Jerusalem fits events outlined in other biblical books such as Revelation. This is an understanding common among dispensationalists, for whom the distress of Jerusalem is linked to the great tribulation and precedes the battle of Armageddon and the subsequent reign of Jesus Christ on earth for a thousand years, the millennium. In this view, “this generation” refers to the generation living at the time of the final attack on Jerusalem or is understood to mean “this race,” meaning that the Jews will not cease to exist as a race until this happens.

The main reason many people have not been persuaded by this handling of the details of Matthew 24 is that they believe verses 15–22 describe the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in a.d. 70. But they also have a problem with “this generation.” Most commentators believe this can hardly mean anything other than the generation living at the time Jesus spoke these words.

The other easy way to solve the problem of the time references in Matthew 24 is to put these events together but to place them in the first Christian century in connection with the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans. In this view, the coming of Christ mentioned in verses 30 and 31 refers to his return in judgment on Jerusalem, and the signs of his coming are understood as Old Testament images of historical but earthshaking events. The “end of the age” (v. 3) means the end of the Jewish age, which is followed by the age of the church. This means that nearly everything in Matthew 24 and 25 is about God’s judgment on Jerusalem, even Jesus’ strong, reiterated warnings to watch and be ready for his return. The same is true for nearly the whole of the Book of Revelation. This view is known as preterism, which means “what has already taken place.” Preterism has been affirmed recently in a guarded way by R. C. Sproul, but it has a history of defenders going back quite a few years. One early proponent is J. Stuart Russell, on whose work Sproul largely depends (R. C. Sproul, The Last Days according to Jesus [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998]; J. Stuart Russell, The Parousia: A Study of the New Testament Doctrine of Our Lord’s Second Coming [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983]).

Why hasn’t everyone accepted this view? One obvious reason is that it is difficult to see how Christ’s coming on the clouds, with power and great glory, with the angels gathering his elect from the far corners of the earth, was fulfilled at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem.

There is this problem too—probably the most significant of all. If everything (or nearly everything) in these chapters is about the fall of Jerusalem, then the disciples’ question about the end of the age is not really answered, at least not as almost anyone, including the disciples, would have understood it. The chapters most Christians have always looked to for assurance of the Lord’s return and encouragement to be ready and watch for it are not about the Lord’s future return at all. In fact, Jesus has virtually nothing to say about his second coming. Nor do any of the other biblical writers, including the author of Revelation.

The Flow of the Chapter

How do we solve these difficulties? History suggests that we probably cannot, at least not to everyone’s satisfaction, since disagreements about this chapter have existed throughout church history. But let me try anyway, starting with the flow of thought in the chapter.

Verse 3. As I pointed out in the last study, Matthew 24 begins with the disciples’ two important questions: (1) “When will this happen?” and (2) “What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (v. 3). The first question was about the destruction of Jerusalem, which Jesus had predicted, and the second was about his glorious return, which he had also predicted—two events, though the disciples probably held them together in their minds. Jesus began by answering the second: “What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”

Verses 4–14. The first thing he told them is that there will be many earth-shaking events that might be thought of as signs, but they will not be. The disciples were not to be troubled by them. They will include false messiahs, wars and rumors of wars, famines and earthquakes, persecutions, apostasy, and false prophets. These are “the beginnings of birth pains” (v. 8), but they are not signs of his return. This is because the gospel of the kingdom must be preached in the whole world before the end will come.

Verses 15–22. The next point Jesus makes is that there is going to be one particularly dreadful event, the destruction of Jerusalem, but even this will not be a sign of his return. The disciples should flee the city when they see these things beginning to happen, but this is still not the end.

Verses 23–28. At this point Jesus makes clear that the destruction of Jerusalem is only one example of the bad things that will happen to people in the course of world history. He does so by returning to what he said earlier about false messiahs. They will appear at this time, as at other times. They will not be true messiahs, and the disciples are not to be taken in by them. How will the disciples know that these pretenders are not the true Messiah? By the fact that they will appear in secret (“in the desert” or “in the inner rooms”), while Jesus’ appearance will be sudden, unannounced, and immediately visible to all, just like lightning that flashes suddenly and is seen at once by everyone.

Verses 29–35. This leads to Jesus’ specific teaching about the second coming. There will be signs in the sky, including “the sign of the Son of Man” (whatever that may be), a loud trumpet call, and the work of angels in gathering the elect from the far reaches of the earth. But the point of these “signs” is not that they will precede Jesus’ coming, as if they will be given to enable people to see them and get ready. On the contrary, they will coincide with Christ’s coming and will be sudden. If a person is not ready beforehand, there will be nothing he or she will be able to do when Jesus actually returns. Such a person will be lost.

Verses 36–51. In the last section of the chapter, Jesus stresses the suddenness of his return by a historical reference and several images. His coming will be like the flood in the days of Noah, or like a thief that enters a house at an unexpected time, or a master who suddenly returns home. Jesus’ servants must be ready since “the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of” (v. 50).

The Difficult Time References

So far so good. But what about the time references, the problem that has led some commentators to the dispensational or preterist positions? I would argue that these must be fitted to the other statements, namely, that distressful times are not signs of Christ’s second coming and that his coming will be so unexpected that no one, not even the angels in heaven nor Jesus himself, can say when it will be. Let’s take the references one at a time.

1. What do we do with the words “immediately after the distress of those days” (v. 29)? The answer is that “the distress of those days” must refer to all the many distressful times throughout history, though perhaps culminating in a time of unusual distress just prior to the Lord’s return. Certainly the earlier statements about false Christs, false prophets, and apostasy support what other Bible writers have to say about the end of history. In fact, when we read passages such as 2 Peter 3:3–13, we hear deliberate echoes of what Jesus taught in Matthew. And why not? It was from Jesus that Peter and the other writers learned it.

What about the sun being darkened, the moon failing to give light, and the stars falling from heaven? Although preterists rightly point out that this is common Old Testament imagery for any cataclysmic historical event—drawn from texts such as Isaiah 13:9–10; Ezekiel 32:7–8; Joel 2:30, 31; 3:15; Amos 8:9—it is also the case that words such as these occur in New Testament passages where they are clearly associated with Christ’s coming at the end of the age. D. A. Carson cites as examples texts such as Matthew 13:40–41; 16:27; 25:31; 1 Corinthians 15:52; 1 Thessalonians 4:14–17; 2 Thessalonians 1:7; 2:1–8; 2 Peter 3:10–12; Revelation 1:7 (D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8, Matthew, Mark, Luke [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984], 493).

Moreover, in the parallel passage in Luke 21, the reference to the sun, moon, and stars is prefaced by the prediction that “Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (v. 24). That must refer to the Gentile domination of Jerusalem from the time of its fall until at least the present age. But it is only after this that Jesus says he will appear the second time. Paul expresses similar ideas about the Gentile age in Romans 11:11–25.

2. “At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky” (v. 30). I haven’t the faintest idea what the sign of the Son of Man is, nor should I. That is something only those who actually see it will know. But if what I have said about the word immediately is correct, this particular time reference is not difficult. It simply links the actual appearance of Jesus to the astronomical irregularities described in verse 29. At the end of the times of distress, which is all of human history, the sun, moon, and stars will be darkened, and at that time Jesus will appear in heaven with his holy angels. That is when the angels will gather the elect.

3. “When you see all these things” and “this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened” (vv. 33–34). These two references go together because they are part of the same paragraph and occur one right after the other. There is a slight change of tone with verse 32. Jesus has spoken of his sudden return in glory, but now he is giving a lesson for those who will be living in the period between his first coming and his second. They are to learn from the fig tree, which signals summer by developing tender twigs and by putting out leaves. “All these things” are compared to those tender twigs and leaves, which means that the distressful things of verses 2–28 show that the Lord’s return is imminent, which it always is!

What about “this generation”? In this view it really is the generation living at the time Christ spoke these words, because that generation actually did see “all these things.”

(NOTE: There are three ways to understand “this generation.”

(1) It can be the generation then living, which is what I maintain.

(2) It might refer to the Jews or to “this kind of people,” the view of most dispensationalists.

(3) Or it can refer to the generation living at the end of history. John Broadus, like most modern commentators, argues that it must refer to the people living in Jesus’ day, though he still regards verses 29–31 as referring to the final, second coming of Christ. “All the things predicted in vv. 4–31 would occur before or in immediate connection with the destruction of Jerusalem. But like events might again occur in connection with another and greater coming of the Lord, and such seems evidently to be his meaning” (John A. Broadus, Commentary on Matthew [Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1990], 492).

William Hendriksen regards “this generation” as the Jews, and one reason he gives is that “things that will take place” are things spread out over the centuries, such as the preaching of the gospel throughout the whole world. The following section, which clearly describes the final return of Jesus, picks up on the coming in verses 29–31; hence, Jesus must be talking about a generation living at least at that time (William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Gospel according to Matthew [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985], 868–69).

They knew of many false Christs, heard of wars and rumors of wars, experienced famines and earthquakes, witnessed apostasy, and heard of false prophets. So has every generation since. Therefore, we have all seen everything we need to see or can see prior to Jesus’ return. We have nothing to look forward to except the second coming. The bottom line of this is that we need to be ready, because “no one knows about that day or hour” when the Lord will come (v. 36).

The Lessons to Be Drawn

Let me go back and review the lessons we should draw from the first thirty-five verses of Matthew 24. The coming of Christ and the end of the world are imminent, meaning that they can occur at any moment. Therefore, our present responsibilities must be:

1. To watch out that no one deceives us (vv. 4, 26). Jesus has a great deal to say about deception in this discourse. In fact, having warned against false Christs at the very beginning of the chapter, he returns to this same point after speaking of the fall of Jerusalem, saying, “If anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect—if that were possible” (vv. 23–24). He repeats this again in verse 26, where he warns against expecting to find the Christ “out in the desert” or “in the inner rooms.”

It would be possible to write a history of the church in terms of the errors that have been foisted upon it, sometimes from without but more often from within, and of how believers have either resisted such errors or have been taken in by them. We have deceivers today, but we are warned here not to be fooled by them.

2. To be settled even in times of war or threats of war (v. 6). This warning includes all political and historical events and is a reminder that the city of God is distinct from man’s city and will survive regardless of what happens in the world. We are not to be unduly encouraged by political events, nor unduly frightened by them. Charles Colson once wisely reminded the delegates to one of the Christian Booksellers conventions after the president of the United States had spoken and they were cheering wildly, “We must remember that the kingdom of God does not arrive on Air Force One.”

3. To stand firm to the end (v. 13). We speak of the perseverance of the saints, meaning that God perseveres with his people so that none of those he has elected to salvation will be lost. Jesus taught this clearly in John 10, saying, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand” (vv. 27–28). But while it is true that God perseveres with us, it is also true that we must persevere. That is what Jesus is speaking of here. He is encouraging us to keep on keeping on, since there is no promise of salvation for those who abandon the faith or deny Christ.

The apostle Paul certainly believed in and taught the security of every genuine believer, but he also wrote, “If we endure, we will also reign with him. If we disown him, he will also disown us” (2 Tim. 2:12). Those words seem to have been based on Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 10:32–33.

4. To preach the gospel throughout the world (v. 14). This is the chief task of the church in the present age. The followers of Christ will be persecuted, and the love of many will grow cold. But throughout the ages of church history, however long they may be, Christians must be strong, faithful, and determined in the task of carrying the gospel to the lost. In fact, this is the note on which the Gospel ends. Jesus’ last words to his disciples were, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:19–20).

As we read this chapter, rather than wondering about the specific moment when Jesus will return, we should be asking ourselves if we are ready for it, whenever it might be. The next section of the chapter warns us to be ready precisely because we do not know the time of Jesus’ return.

About the Author

Boice JM in pulpit

James Montgomery Boice, Th.D., (July 7, 1938 – June 15, 2000) was a Reformed theologian, Bible teacher, and pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia from 1968 until his death. He is heard on The Bible Study Hour radio broadcast and was a well-known author and speaker in evangelical and Reformed circles. He also served as Chairman of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy for over ten years and was a founding member of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.James Boice was one of my favorite Bible teachers. Thankfully – many of his books and expositions of Scripture are still in print and more are becoming available. He was one of only a handful of reformed pastor/theologians that was premillennial in his eschatology (Steven J. Lawson, John MacArthur, Erwin W. Lutzer, S. Lewis Johnson, Rodney Stordtz, John Hannah and John Piper also come to mind). The sermon above was adapted from Chapter 56 in The Gospel of Matthew: The Triumph of the King, Matthew 18-28. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006.

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