The particular passages to be considered in this study are Matthew 24:3, 15, 33-34 and Mark 13 and Luke 21. Was Christ referring to His second coming and the literal end of the world, or to the end of a certain age? If the latter, what age?
The question asked by the disciples grew out of the statement Jesus made about the coming utter destruction of Jerusalem. And the speech Jesus made was in answer to the questions of the disciples; and no matter what view you take of the speech Jesus made, there are difficulties. But we must not ignore the fact that the speech was made in answer to the questions asked by the disciples. Matthew, Mark and Luke give a record of these questions. Matthew: “Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?” Substituting the marginal reading, the last question would be, “And what shall be the sign of thy presence, and of the consummation of the age?” This would mean the complete ending of the Jewish age in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple—the destruction of the Jews as an organized nation. Mark: “Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign when these things are all about to be accomplished?” (ASV). Luke: “Teacher, when therefore shall these things be? and what shall be the sign when these things are about to come to pass?” (ASV).
To say that Matthew’s report of the questions does not mean the same as the reports of Mark and Luke is to accuse someone of giving a false report. Compare the wording of the last question in Matthew with the way Mark and Luke record it.
In an important sense, the Lord is always present with those who serve Him; and yet there are occasions when His presence is so manifest in some work, blessing, or disaster, it is said that He comes on such occasions. The disciples at that time expected that Jesus would soon declare Himself King, and the Jews had so bitterly persecuted Him that they would expect Him to put down His enemies and carry out the decree He made about the temple.
Many times the coming of the Lord is mentioned when His second coming is not hinted at (Read Psa. 80:1-2; 101:2; John 14:23; Rev. 2:5, 16, 25; 3:3, 11, 20). Certainly David was not referring to the second coming of Christ. Certainly John 14:23 does not refer to His second coming; and it is just as certain that five of the references in Revelation do not refer to His second coming, and the other reference does not seem to do so. Certainly the Lord did not deceive these good people of Thyatira by making them believe His last coming would occur while they yet lived.
With the disciples’ notions and understanding of matters, how could they have been asking about what we now know as the second coming of Christ? They did not so much believe that Jesus would be killed, and, therefore, did not believe that He was going away. The common idea amongst the Jews was that the Messiah, when He came, would abide with them forever (John 12:32-34).
Even after Jesus rose from the dead the disciples expected Him to soon assume the reigns of government in Jerusalem—they still did not expect Him to go away (Acts 1:6). They could not, therefore, have been asking about His second coming. Commentators have viewed their question in the light of later knowledge and not in the light of what the disciples then knew, and it is astonishing that Bible students have done so. The disciples referred to His coming in judgment on Jerusalem.
Jesus had said that the temple would be utterly destroyed (Matt. 24:2) and the disciples asked Him, “What shall be the sign when these things are all about to be accomplished?” He mentioned the signs that would presage the destruction of Jerusalem. Just as the fig tree’s putting forth its leaves showed the near approach of summer, “even so ye also, when ye see these things coming to pass, know ye that he is nigh, even at the doors” (Mark 13:29). And it would all occur before all the people then living passed away. And none but the Father knew that Jerusalem would be destroyed. But it would be a dark time for the Jews.
To make most of Matthew, chapter 24, refer to the end of the world, a matter about which they had not inquired, is to accuse Jesus of not dealing fairly with His disciples; and it would be confusing to them, for they would certainly understand that He was answering their questions.
The siege and downfall of Jerusalem would be a time of great tribulation. Josephus tells us about the horrors of that time. Yet while the Jews were still fighting and the Romans were outside the walls, there was hope. But when Jerusalem fell and the Jews that were still alive were carried off as slaves, darkness settled over them. That darkness is described in Matthew 24:29. The language is figurative, as was also the language used in describing the condition of the Babylonians after the fall of Babylon (Isa. 13:1-10).
Some have argued that “this generation” in Matthew 24:34 refers to the Jewish race, and that it would not cease to be until all the things mentioned had occurred. But it seems better to take generation in its ordinary meaning. To make it refer to race is to make Jesus guilty of saying an absurd thing. He had been telling what would happen to the Jews. It would be absurd for Him to say, “This Jewish race shall not pass away till all the things that are going to happen to it have happened to it.”