Christ goes on to say (vv. 37-38),
"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! See, your house is left to you desolate..."
Here Christ is referring to that terrible judgment that would come upon their guilty nation. Their capital city, Jerusalem, was to be completely overthrown by the Romans, and their "house" (i.e., the temple) would be left to them "desolate." Shortly after his lament over Jerusalem, we read of Christ's disciples pointing out the beauty of the temple. To their likely astonishment, Christ proceeds to tell them that it will be utterly destroyed (24:2). Christ's disciples then ask him when this cataclysmic event would take place (v. 3). Notice how they connect the sign of his coming and of the close of the age with the destruction of the temple of which he’d just spoken:
"Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, "You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down." 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 close of the age? ” Matt 24:1-3
"These things" refers to the destruction of the temple and its buildings (which would be the most dramatic aspect of the judgment coming upon their nation). "Your coming" refers to the prophetic vision from Daniel (which the disciples had appropriately applied to Jesus) in which the Messiah comes with the clouds of heaven to appear before the Ancient of Days to receive a kingdom. It is this event that the apostles associated with the national judgment of which Christ spoke, which would bring the present age in which they lived (i.e., the age under the Mosaic Law) to a close. The "sign" of Christ’s coming denotes that event which would indicate that the judgment of which he’d spoken ("these things") was about to take place.
We can confirm this as the correct meaning of the passage by simply comparing it with the parallel accounts from Mark and Luke:
"And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!" And Jesus said to him, "Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down." And as he sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately, "Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?" Mark 13:1-4
"And while some were speaking of the temple, how it was adorned with noble stones and offerings, he said, "As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down." And they asked him, "Teacher, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?" Luke 21:5-7
Mark's "the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished" (Mark 13:4) and Luke's "the sign when these things are about to take place" (Luke 21:7) corresponds with Matthew's "the sign of your coming and of the close of the age" (Matt 24:3). Again, these are parallel accounts. The judgment that fell upon the nation of Israel, the coming of Christ, and the "close of the age" were understood by Christ and his disciples as being concurrent. The only reason to view them as separate events (taking place more than two thousand years apart) would be because one’s presupposed eschatological view required it. However, neither this text nor the content of Christ’s response that follows in the rest of chapter 24 allows for any such division.
The first sign Christ gave his disciples to look for as an indication that his coming was near was that false messiahs and prophets would begin to appear to deceive his followers: "See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, 'I am the Christ,' and they will lead many astray" (Matt 24:4). Later on in the discourse, he says, "For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you beforehand" (vv. 24-25). Josephus writes that many false prophets and false Messiahs appeared during the government of Felix (A.D. 53-60) and deluded many (War, b. ii. c. 13). See Acts 8:9-10 and 13:6 for two such examples. Methodist commentator Adam Clarke notes, "A few years afterwards, under the reign of Nero, while Felix was procurator of Judea, impostors of this stamp were so frequent that some were taken and killed almost every day (Ant. b. xx. c. 4. and 7)." Such figures played a leading role in the Jewish revolt in late A.D. 66 that led to the Jewish-Roman War. And by the time the apostle John began writing his first epistle, he knew it was the "last hour" (1 John 2:18.). On what basis could John make this bold assertion? Answer: John was basing his understanding of the times on Christ’s own prophetic words in the Olivet Discourse. John knew that it was the "last hour" because "many antichrists" (i.e., false prophets and false christs) had already come to lead believers astray (1 John 2:26). They had heard that the "spirit of antichrist" was coming (because Christ had predicted it beforehand), but by the time of John's writing, this deceptive spirit was "already in the world" (1 John 4:3).
The "wars and rumors of wars" of which Christ warned (vv. 6-7) would not have been perceived as an unusual sign during most periods of world history (including our own day), but during the Pax Romana, war was extremely rare. Concerning this time in Roman history, Epictetus writes that "Caesar has obtained for us a profound peace. There are neither wars nor battles" (Discourses 3:13:9). Yet we know from Josephus that, as the time of Israel’s overthrow drew nearer, a state of unsettledness increasingly characterized the Roman Empire as wars and insurrections became more and more numerous and frequent (Ant. b. xviii. c. 9; War, b. ii. c. 10). Regarding famines and earthquakes (v. 7), Josephus writes that during Claudius' reign (A.D. 41-54) there were four seasons of great scarcity, and in the fourth year of his reign, the famine in Judea was so severe that the price of food became enormous and great numbers died (cf. Acts 11:28). We also know from history that several earthquakes occurred in both Caligula's reign (A.D. 37-41) and Claudius' (A.D. 41-54) (cf. Acts 16:25-26). Josephus reports many earthquakes in A.D. 68, in the midst of the Jewish-Roman war. Describing one such earthquake that was accompanied by a lightning storm, Josephus remarked, "Anyone would guess that these wonders foreshadowed some grand calamities that were coming" (Wars 4.4.5). Tacitus reported them throughout Rome as well, and, like Josephus, interpreted them as omens of impending judgment (Histories, 1.2-3).
All of these things, Christ says, are "but the beginning of birth pains" (v. 8). Christ then warns and exhorts his disciples (vv. 9-14),
Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.
There was indeed a period of intense persecution and martyrdom leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem. Christ had told his disciples that, in the near future, they would begin to be persecuted, and some would be put to death (see Matt 10:16-22; Matt 23:34; cf. 1 Thess. 2:14-16; Revelation 6:10-11,17; 16:6, 15; 18:5, 20). In Matt 10:23, Christ told his disciples, "When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes." Shortly after Pentecost, persecution against believers broke out just as Christ prophesied. This persecution of believers (instigated by both the Jewish and Roman authorities) steadily increased up until the destruction of Jerusalem. And as persecution intensified, so did apostasy and false teaching. Throughout the NT we read of believers being warned against apostatizing and giving heed to false teaching (2 Cor 11:13; Gal. 2:4; 5:4; 1 Tim 1:3-11; 4:1; Heb. 2:1-3, 3:6, 14; 6:4-6; 10:26-27; 1 John 2:18-20, 24; 4:1-3; 2 Pet 2:1-2, 20-21; Jude 1:3-4; etc.), which indicates that what Christ had prophesied of had already become a significant problem at this time. But what of the "whole world" throughout which Christ prophesied the gospel of the kingdom would be proclaimed before "the end" came (Matt. 24:14)? The word translated here as "world" (oikoumene) need not denote the entire inhabited planet, but simply the domain and territory of the Roman Empire (see Luke 2:1; Acts 24:5; Rom 1:8 and Col. 1:6, 23; cf. Rom 10:18). The proclamation of the gospel throughout the world (i.e., the "great commission") was thus fulfilled by 70 AD.
Jesus continues his discourse in Matthew 24 by revealing to his disciples the sign by which they would know when to flee to the mountains for safety: the "abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place" (v. 15). In Luke’s account of the Olivet Discourse, we read (21:20-21): "But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near." Here, we find that the "abomination of desolation" refers to the pagan armies of Rome surrounding the holy city of Jerusalem, bent on its utter destruction. According to Eusebius (Eccl. History), when the Romans began advancing toward the city, the disciples of Judea remembered Christ’s admonition and fled to the mountains of Pella, beyond the Jordan, for safety (v. 16). The urgency with which Christ exhorted his disciples to flee from the area when the opportune time came (vv. 17-18) is completely appropriate if Christ is speaking of a local judgment, but makes little to no sense if we understand this judgment in a global sense. Moreover, because the houses of Jerusalem were flat-roofed and situated close together, the Christians would have been able to use them as a means of quickly escaping from the city. In v. 19, Christ speaks of the great difficulty that this time would prove to be for pregnant and nursing women. In v. 20, he tells his disciples to pray that their "flight" (i.e., their fleeing from the city of Jerusalem to the mountains of Judea for safety) would not be in winter or on the Sabbath. Such words are emptied of both force and meaning outside of a first-century Jewish context, when winter travel was especially challenging. And with the gates of Jerusalem being closed on the Sabbath (Neh 13:19), it would have made escape at this time all the more difficult.
The hyperbolic language (i.e., exaggeration for emphasis and effect) employed by Jesus in vv. 21-22 was common among the Jewish people, as can be seen from the following references: Exodus 10:14 (cf. Joel 1:2); 11:6; Ezekiel 5:8-9; 2 Kings 18:5 (cf. 2 Kings 23:25); Daniel 9:12; John 21:25. But even if taken literally, Christ's words in these verses need not be understood to emphasize so much the mere number of deaths per se, as the nature of the carnage and the intensity of the event. In addition to Josephus’ estimate that 1.1 million Jews perished during this time (Wars 6.9.2), we are also told of the starvation and cannibalism that took place during the final five-month siege of Jerusalem (Wars 5.12.3 and 6.5.1). And by the end of the war, we are told that Jerusalem, the temple, the Mediterranean, Sea of Galilee, Jordan, and Dead Sea were covered with blood and gorged with bodies (Wars 3.9.3; 3.10.9; 4.7.6; 4.1.10; 4.5.1; 5.1.3; 6.8.5; cf. Rev. 8:8-11). Josephus also reports that the Romans laid waste to Israel, and set fire to towns, cities, and trees (Wars 6.1.1; 3.7.8; 5.6.2; 3.7.1; 3.7.8; 5.6.2; 3.4.1; 6.6.2; 7.5.5; cf. Rev. 18:8). Even if we allow for a degree of exaggeration in Josephus’ words, the awful severity of the judgment that fell upon the Jewish nation at this time cannot be denied.
In vv. 23-25, Christ again warns his disciples of deceivers. Significantly, his words in vv. 26-28 are for the purpose of cautioning his followers from being deceived into thinking that this "coming" would be a personal one, in which he would be bodily present somewhere so that they could find and meet with him. Because the coming of which he was speaking in this chapter was to be a national judgment (and consequently wouldn’t involve his personal presence in some secret location), it would be obvious to all, like lightening that comes from the east and shines as far as the west. On this verse, Adam Clarke notes in his commentary: "It is worthy of remark that our Lord, in the most particular manner, points out the very march of the Roman army: they entered into Judea on the East, and carried on their conquest Westward, as if not only the extensiveness of the ruin, but the very route which the army would take, were intended in the comparison of the lightning issuing from the east, and shining to the west." Moreover, Christ’s ominous words in the next verse may easily be applied to this national judgment: the "corpse" of which Christ speaks was the spiritually dead Jewish nation, and the gathering birds of prey (variously translated as "vultures" or "eagles") represent the Roman armies gathering around the doomed city.
In v. 29, Christ describes disturbances of a cosmic nature as taking place at his coming: "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." When Jesus used this kind of language in his Olivet Discourse, we can be sure he was not giving his disciples a weather forecast. He was simply using the same sort of language employed in the judgment prophecies of the Old Testament to describe a judgment that was going to be taking place in their day, before that generation passed away. Being first century Jews who knew their inspired Scriptures, his disciples would have understood that such imagery involving atmospheric phenomena and cosmic/earthly upheaval denoted the violent overthrow of whatever people or nation was in view (Judges 5:4-5, 20; 2 Samuel 22:6-17; Isaiah 13:10, 13; 34:4-5; Jer 4:23-29; Ezekiel 32:7-8; Nahum 1:4-6; Joel 2:10, 28; 3:15; Amos 8:9). The imagery of "clouds," especially, was employed in the Old Testament to represent divine power and glory, especially as manifested in a judgment being carried upon a nation through the instrumentality of another nation (e.g., Psalm 18:9-12; 97:2-5; 104:3; Isaiah 19:1-3; Jer 4:13-14; Eze 30:3; 34:12; Nahum 1:3; Joel 2:1-2; Zeph 1:15). Thus, Christians who are well-acquainted with the language of the Old Testament have no reason to understand similar prophecies of judgment made in the New Testament in a literal sense. Note also Christ’s words, "Immediately after the distress of those days." There is no gap between those events leading up to Jerusalem’s destruction, and the coming of Christ with the clouds of heaven referred to in v. 30. But this immediacy should not be surprising, for we've already seen that the "coming" of Christ about which his disciples inquired at the beginning of chapter 24 is inseparable from the destruction of Jerusalem and the close of the age.
What about the "tribes of the earth" of which Christ speaks in v. 30, who would witness this event? The apostle John speaks of these "tribes of the earth" in Rev 1:7: "Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will mourn on account of him." This imagery is derived from Zechariah 12:10-14:
And I will pour out on the house of David, and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and prayers. And they shall look on me whom they have pierced, and shall mourn for him. As one mourns, for an only son, and will be bitter over him like the bitterness over the firstborn. In that day the mourning in Jerusalem will be great,[/i] like the mourning of Hadad-rimmon in the valley of Megiddo. [b]And the land shall mourn, families by families alone; the family of the house of David alone, and their wives alone; the family of Nathan alone, and their wives alone; the family of the house of Levi alone, and their wives alone; the family of Shimei alone, and their wives alone; all the families who are left, family by family alone, and their wives alone.
The Hebrew word for "family" here (mishpachah) can also mean a "tribe," "clan," or "people." Thus, the "tribes of the earth" which Christ prophesied would see the "sign of the Son of Man" refers to the people of Israel. This passage from Zechariah also helps us identify the "earth" (or "land") referred to by Christ: it is the land of Judea, where the inhabitants of Jerusalem dwelled.
Regarding the "angels" that would be sent out at this time to "gather the elect," it should be noted that the word simply means "messenger," "minister" or "emissary," and is used to describe both human and supernatural beings. It does not so much describe a nature, but an office, and refers to human beings in at least the following places in the NT: Matt 3:1; 11:10; Mark 1:2; Luke 7:24, 27; 9:52; Phil 2:25; 2 Cor 8:23; James 2:25; Rev 2:1, 18; 3:1, 7, 14. Though some see this verse as referring to the "rapture," it is not necessary to understand the gathering of the elect of which Christ speaks as being a supernatural event being performed by supernatural power. Instead, Christ is more likely talking about appointed Jewish believers spreading the word to the Gentile Christians that the age of the Messianic reign had begun, that they might all be gathered together for worship and rejoicing.
Finally, what seems to fix the timeframe for when all of this would transpire is what Christ exclaims to his disciples in v. 34: "Truly, I say to you,this generation will not pass away until all these things take place." As noted earlier, genea appears to have been used consistently by Christ to refer to his first-century contemporaries (see Matt 11:16; 12:39; 12:41-42, 45; Matt 23:32-36; Mark 8:38; Luke 11:49-51; 17:25). All the things which Christ said would take place before that generation passed away would have included, of course, Christ's coming on the clouds of heaven, as well as all the events that would lead up to it.