PassageA longer passage, with a number of headings in the ESV, but they’re all thematically-related, so I’ll include them all.
Verses 1–2 (ESV) are simple enough: Jesus and the disciples are at the temple, and the disciples are marveling at how amazing it is, but Jesus tells them that the entire structure is going to be torn down, to the point that not a single pair of stones will be left on top of each other.
Verses 3–13 (ESV), however, are a bit meatier. Peter, James, John, and Andrew privately ask Jesus when these things — i.e. the destruction of the temple — are going to happen. Strangely enough, rather than answering their question, Jesus instead elects to answer when these things are not going to happen: many people are going to come, claiming to be Jesus, but his followers shouldn’t listen or assume it means these things are going to happen; there will be wars and rumours of wars, but these should not lead people to think the end has come either; there will be earthquakes and famines, but these are not signs of the end either. Jesus lists a number of other things that are also going to happen before the end comes: Christians will be delivered over to rulers (both religious and secular) and stand trial and be beaten; they will proclaim the gospel to all nations; families will betray each other, reporting family members as being Christians, even when the result is death; Christians will be hated. A bleak list, but Jesus also presents some good points out of that: when Christians are presented before their religious and secular leaders to stand trial, it will be a forum for the gospel to be presented, and when that happens they won’t need to be anxious about what to say, because the Holy Spirit will help them to find the words.
The next few sections, in verses 14–23, 24–27, and 28–31, get really… confusing. I’m not sure that I even want to summarize it; just read it.
But that’s followed by a passage in verses 32–37 (ESV), which is much more easy to understand: Nobody knows when the end is going to come. The angels don’t know, even Jesus doesn’t know. So, Jesus tells us, we should be on guard, and “keep awake,” because we don’t know at what moment he might return.
ThoughtsWhen Jesus tells the disciples that the temple is going to be torn down, I’m not sure if he’s rebuking them or not. I’m not necessarily reading it that way — he might just be giving them some interesting information about what’s going to happen — but it’s also possible that they’re so enthralled with the structure itself that they’re forgetting the God for whom it’s supposed to be dedicated; he might be telling them to stop focusing on the temple, and focus on God. He could even be calling attention to the new age approaching, wherein the “temple” is no longer the physical structure in Jerusalem, but Christians’ bodies.
When the disciples ask when “these things will be,” it’s right on the heels of him telling them that the temple is going to be destroyed. He could have said, “in about 30 years,” which is when the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, but instead he chose to answer what they were really asking: when is the end going to come? Except, as mentioned, he didn’t actually answer even that; instead, he told them about a bunch of things that might make it appear the end was arriving, but that they shouldn’t pay attention. Later on he’ll get even more specific, and tell them that no one will know the day or hour. The lesson being that we shouldn’t focus so much on trying to figure out when Jesus will come back — a “hobby” many Christians give way to — but, instead, focus on living our day-to-day lives properly right here and now. If Jesus comes back tomorrow, great; if he comes back in another thousand years, fine; either way, it shouldn’t change how I live my life right here and now, today, at this minute.
As part of the passage in verses 3–13 Jesus also tells the disciples that “the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations,” and I’ve heard numerous commentators and missionaries take this statement to mean that Jesus isn’t going to return — can’t return — until that happens. It’s sort of a reverse of the way people try to predict the end times; instead of saying, “When this happens, and this happens, and this happens, then Jesus will return,” they say, “until this happens, Jesus won’t return.” I’m not sure that this is such a good idea, frankly; it seems like the same problem under a different guise. Was Jesus really saying something specific about his return, or was he simply telling his disciples — who, remember, were Jewish — that the gospel is going beyond the Jews to the Gentiles? I don’t want to pick any fights over this, it’s not something I’m going to go to the wall for, but I have a sneaking suspicion that trying to take this too literally, and claim that Jesus can’t/won’t return until the gospel is proclaimed to “all nations” — and, of course, trying to parse what Jesus really means by “nation,” which is currently leading missionaries to talk a lot about “people groups” — might just be more of the same focus on end times mystery solving. If it doesn’t change how people live their lives in the here and now then, again, it’s not something that I think is going to do a lot of harm. Neither do I think, though, that it’s a good idea to spend a lot of time thinking about when Jesus is going to come, or when he can’t/won’t come.
But now, having just said that I don’t think people should focus so much on trying to figure out the day and the hour, we come to verses 14–31, in which Jesus talks about the Abomination of Desolation, followed by his (Christ’s) return, and it’s really hard to know what to do with this passage. I don’t think you’ll find too many commentators who claim the Abomination of Desolation is anything other than the Antichrist, and the ESV Study Bible takes “standing where he ought not to be” as meaning that he’s in the temple, so that makes some sense to me. But other than that, what are we to take away from this passage? Jesus is telling us to flee when we see this! It’s pretty shocking for Jesus to be telling us to flee from anything or anyone; especially in light of passages like James 4:7 (ESV):
Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.So James tells us that the devil will flee from us if we resist him, whereas Jesus tells us to flee when the Antichrist comes? This is beyond my ability to figure out. (If you believe you have it figured out, I’ll be skeptical.)
Mixed in with this, of course, is yet another warning from Jesus in verses 21–22 (ESV) that we shouldn’t believe it, even amongst all of this Antichrist business, when people claim to have seen the Christ. So the only thing I can take away from that is that Christ, when he returns, will be really obvious. If you’re not sure if it’s the Christ, it’s not.
Of course, we have to do something with verses 28–31, in which Jesus tells us that we should know he is near when these things take place — referring to what he said in verses 24–27:
“But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”So if you see the sun getting darkened, and stars falling from the sky, yes, sure, at that point, feel free to believe that Christ’s return is imminent.
And, that being said, that brings us to the final passage of this chapter, in which Jesus tells that nobody knows when the end is going to come. The angels don’t know, and even Jesus himself doesn’t know. What we should be inferring from that is that we don’t know either. If Jesus Christ doesn’t know when he’s going to return, what kind of arrogance would it take for any of us to think we’ve figured out the mystery, and know when he’s going to come? Do you think you’re going to search the scriptures and crack a code that Jesus couldn’t crack?!?
So again, in summary: when he comes, you’ll know it. Until then, live as if he might return at any second.