Theme: Always be ready to persevere
In this week’s lesson we hear about Jesus’ discussion of the end times and how we should respond
“Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
I do not think there is any great difficulty understanding what Jesus says in the Olivet Discourse up to verse 28 of Matthew 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 would be an exceptionally traumatic event, though even this 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 most Bible students and commentators.
Mostly it has to do with timing. Jesus had spoken of the destruction of Jerusalem, which occurred in 70 A.D. by the Roman armies under the command of Titus. But having said that, he continued, “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 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 on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory, accompanied by a sign in heaven, 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 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 called Jesus’ teaching about his return 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.”1
1 Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian: And Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects, ed. Paul Edwards (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1957), pp. 16, 17.
What has Jesus explained thus far in Matthew 24?
Why are these verses difficult to interpret?
What do you think of Bertrand Russell’s comment about Jesus? How would you answer someone who came to you with a similar idea?