Matthew 24 and the Second Coming
I have struggled for many years with Jesus' words in Matthew 24 about what appears to be his second coming. The problem is that sentence just after he tells of his climatic coming: "Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled" (ver.34). The problem is that it is almost certain that "this generation" refers to the people living in Jesus' day. If the previous verses (vs. 29-33) are a reference to the Second Coming, it appears that Jesus is predicting his coming within that very generation.
Over the years, atheists (such as Betrand Russell, among others) have picked up on this and used this as a reason why they rejected the Christian faith. If Jesus did predict his coming before that generation passed away, then he simply was wrong. His prophesy was false. And so he is not who the Church claims he is: namely, the Son of God and Savior of the world.
The Church has also struggled with this over the years, quite apart from any consideration of the snarky comments of guys like Russell. Over time, there have been a lot of attempts to reconcile Jesus' teaching with his rather forceful words in verse 34. For example, some have claimed that the word "generation" means "race," and so what Jesus is saying is that the Jewish race would not pass away before Jesus returned. The problem with this interpretation is that it is a very questionable definition for "generation." It seems that most scholars reject it as a reasonable definition.
Another way to deal with it is what has sometimes been called "preterism" or a variation thereof. Preterists claim that all the prophesies in the Scripture (Old and New Testaments) have all been fulfilled. Preterists therefore do not put Matthew 24 in the category of unfulfilled prophesy; they claim it was entirely fulfilled by the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. This of course is tempting, because there is no question that Matthew 24 deals largely with the destruction of the Jewish holy city. But what do you do with the words of verses 29-33? It really is hard to conceive for me, at least, that this paragraph is talking about the Roman army's triumph over Jerusalem. Especially since, as Jesus goes on in verses 36 through the end of chapter 25, it is almost incontrovertible that Jesus is referring to the end of the world as a whole, not just the close of a chapter in salvific history.
There are variations of this. Some scholars, like R.T. France, believe that everything up to verse 35 is talking about the destruction of Jerusalem. Then in verses 36 and following, he switches to the Second Coming (note that the disciples have asked two questions: one related to the destruction of Jerusalem, and one related to the Second Coming, verse 3). The "coming" in verse 31 is then not a coming for salvation, but a coming in judgment. Scholars who take this interpretation do a fairly good job in justifying their position by paying careful attention to the imagery used in verses 29-33 and comparing them to similar phraseology in the Old Testament, where such phrases clearly refer to temporal judgments. In fact, after reading France on this (see his commentary on Matthew) I was almost convinced.
But I don't buy it for two reasons. First, because the imagery of "coming" is used again in chapter 25:31, "When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him...". The following scene described by Jesus is a reference to the final judgment (this seems clear to me, at least). The same language is used here as in 24:29,ff. but with a reference not to Jesus coming to judge Jerusalem but to the final climatic coming of Jesus to judge all the world. As the parables in chapter 25 are clearly tied to his teaching in chapter 24, this leads me to believe that Jesus is referring to his Second Coming in 24:29-33.
Second, it doesn't fit with the Lukan telling of Jesus' words. In Luke's narrative, Jesus says, "And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory (cf. Mt 24:30). And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh." A coming of Jesus in judgment? No, "for your redemption draweth nigh." The redemption of the Church was not accomplished at the destruction of Jerusalem, but it will be at that Great Day. The coming Jesus is referring to is not just a coming for judgment but a coming for redemption. It seems to me that these words of Jesus in Luke fit much better with the Second Coming.
So then, we are back to the original problem: how to reconcile verse 34 with the previous verses. Here's my attempt at it.
First of all, it seems that the sorrows that Jesus refers to in verses 6-14 cover the entire period of human history until the very End (see verse 14). Then, beginning in verse 15 through verse 24, Jesus refers to the destruction of Jerusalem as a species of the sorrows of vs. 6-14. The point of all this is given in verses 25-28: don't expect Jesus' return just because really bad things are happening. Charlatans will take advantage of suffering to hype people up into expecting immediate deliverance. Don't buy it. In any case, you won't have to guess when the Second Coming is because it will be as obvious as lightening that explodes across the sky.
So when Jesus says, "Immediately after the tribulation of those days..." I don't think he's referring to just the destruction of Jerusalem, but to all the sorrows of which the destruction of Jerusalem was a species, and which covers the entire period of human history, down to the End. Luke’s account of the Olivet Discourse in chapter 21 of his gospel helps us to see that the time period begun by the destruction of Jerusalem doesn’t end with the city’s overthrow by the Roman armies in AD 70 but continues “until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled” (ver. 24), which I believe extends to the present day. So the time period described by the phrase, “Immediately after the tribulation of those days” in Mt. 24:29, doesn’t refer just to AD 70, but to the entire period of time beginning with the destruction of Jerusalem and continuing "until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled." A lot of suffering will take place before Jesus returns during "the times of the Gentiles," make no mistake about it. But when God says enough is enough, the curtains come down, and the show is over. Human history ends abruptly in the climatic return of the Son of God (verses 29-31).
Jesus then gives the parable of the fig tree (vs. 32-33) with an application in verse 34. The point again seems to be to expect a lot of suffering before the Return. The prevalence of suffering is like the appearance of figs on the fig tree: when that happens, you know the End is near. But remember, the suffering that precedes the Second Coming is not just the destruction of Jerusalem as vs. 6-14 show. They include that event as a subset, but the subset is not the whole set of events! However, all the different species of suffering that will figure into the experience of God's people (including the destruction of Jerusalem) will be experienced by that generation.
Therefore the words, "This generation will not pass until all these things be fulfilled" seems to be a reference to all the different kinds of tribulation experienced by the church leading up to the Second Coming, not the Second Coming itself. This is borne out by the previous verse: "So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors." What is near? The coming of Christ. The "all these things" that will be fulfilled in that generation are the same "all these things" that mark the nearness of the Coming of the Lord, not the actual event itself. And of course if this is the case, then there is no contradiction between Jesus' prophesy and what actually has happened.
The following verses seem to bear this out. The problem with guys like Russell claiming that Jesus was predicting his Second Coming within that very generation is that it doesn't fit with what Jesus says about it in verse 36: “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only" (ESV). In other words, Jesus is saying that even he did not know when the Second Coming would take place! Even if, like the KJV, you omit the words "nor the Son," the point is still the same. "But the Father only" precludes the Son as a co-knower. So how could he predict it at all? That would be impossible, given his own words. No, verse 34 is not a prediction that the events in verses 29-31 would happen in that very generation. They are a prediction that the sorrows which the church will experience in the entire time leading up to the Second Coming would be experienced by that very generation. (By the way, I am not denying the omniscience of God when I say - as the text itself does! - that Jesus did not know the time of his Second Coming. For we know that, due to the unity of the person of Christ, sometimes what is proper to one nature is attributed to the other [see, for example, Acts 20:28]. So here: what is attributed to his divine nature as the Son is proper only of his human nature [i.e. limited knowledge]. The human mind of Christ did not know this; but this does not mean that the divine mind of Christ did not know this. This is a great mystery of course, and it is probably impossible to understand how exactly the Son of God would have experienced this.)
But since Jesus himself does not know the timing of the Second Coming, we should always be ready for it (vs. 36-51). "Watch!" is the word for the church today. What Jesus is doing is preparing his disciples for the shock of his absence. They might recover from his death on a cross by the resurrection: but would they hold out in his absence? You must, Jesus is saying. Hold on, be ready at all times. Don't be like the foolish virgins (25:1-13) or the Foolish Servant (25:14-30), who squandered their time as if the Master was not going to return. I will return, Jesus is saying, and the faithful will be eternally blessed (25:31-46).