The Return of Christ
Topic: Expository Passage: Matthew 24:23-31
This morning we are going to pick up where we left off 3 week ago in our series through the Olivet Discourse. Remember that the OD is framed by Jesus’ prophecy in 24:2 that the temple would soon be destroyed. The disciples were stunned by this terrible news; therefore, they ask Jesus 2 questions in v. 3.
Apparently the disciples assumed that a catastrophic event like the destruction of the temple must coincide with Christ’s return and “the end of the age.” As a result, they don’t just ask when the temple will be destroyed but when will Christ return to destroy the ungodliness of this age and to establish his kingdom.
Jesus responds with the Olivet Discourse. In this speech Jesus describes the events surrounding his 2nd coming (chart). Verses 4–28 describe the 7-year Tribulation just before Christ’s return.
Therefore, we saw in vv. 4–14 that the Tribulation will be marked by violence, natural disasters, and death. And then we saw in vv. 15–22 that the Tribulation will grow especially bad during the final 3.5 years as antichrist betrays Israel and attempts to kill every Jew and Christian on the face of the earth. Notice how vv. 21–22 describe the final 3.5 years of the Tribulation (read). It’s going to be an awful time, like the world has never seen before.
(Slide) Our text for today picks up during the final 3.5 years of the Tribulation, but it quickly shift from the darkness of the Tribulation to the glorious return of Christ at the end of Tribulation (read). Our world has seen some pretty incredible phenomena, but it hasn’t seen anything like the return of Christ. In this text, Jesus describes his own return, and tells us 2 important truths about this grand event. First…
I. Christ’s return will be obvious (vv. 23–28).
Remember that Jesus is ultimately addressing the generation of Jews and Christians who will be alive during the Tribulation. We know this because only this generation will see the Abomination of Desolation, which is mentioned in v. 15, and the second coming of Christ, which is mentioned in v. 27. However, there is a lot of significance for us in the warning of vv. 23–26. But primarily Jesus warns the Tribulation generation that…
False messiahs will make false claims (vv. 23–26). It’s easy to imagine that during the dark days of the Tribulation Jews and Christians will be looking extra hard for the return of Christ. They will agonize as the world collapses around them and as they hide from Antichrist’s genocidal intentions. But they will also be amazed as they watch God fulfill prophecy after prophecy just as he said. So naturally, they will greatly anticipate the climax of all biblical prophecies when Jesus returns.
But Jesus anticipates that their urgency for his return might make them susceptible to imposters. So he warns in v. 24, “False christs and false prophets will rise…” These false messiahs will claim to be Israel’s promised deliverer from antichrist. And Jesus says that some of them will actually perform miraculous signs.
But they are imposters drawing on Satan’s power. Therefore, Jesus commands his people in v. 23, “Do not believe it.” Again, in 26 he warns, “Therefore…” As false messiah, these guys will try to inspire rebellions against Antichrist. Therefore, they will rally followings out in the desert or in secret rooms to avoid Antichrist’s wrath.
Of course God’s people will be sympathetic to their desire to overthrow Antichrist. And, some of them will seem very convincing and will rally large followings. Verse 24 says, “If possible” (which it’s not) they would deceive “even the elect.” So Jesus warns his people not to be deceived. Instead, they must filter every claim through the grid of Scripture.
Of course, we need this same warning also? Are there people today who claim to have miraculous powers and to receive divine revelations? Absolutely! How many cults have been established around a charismatic leader who claims to receive divine revelation or to have miraculous ability? We could talk all day about the Joseph Smiths and David Koreshs.
Sadly there are others who claim to be Christians but use false theology and false signs to lead people away from truth. Benny Hinn, Bill Johnson and others claim to have miraculous powers. And they preach an appealing message that feels Christian even while it denies fundamental biblical truths. Sadly many people buy their lies, because sinners will always gravitate toward a message that reflects their passions rather than toward the narrow, hard road of genuine discipleship.
But Jesus warns that we must test every teacher, no matter how charismatic and powerful. In 27, he gives an obvious test for the Tribulation saints. For us, the test is always Scripture. Folks, what ultimately matters is not how someone’s message or method makes you feel or how much you like what they have to say. What matters is what God says in his infallible Word. So stay anchored to Scripture, and test everything by the Scriptures.
And what a blessing it is to know that the Holy Spirit will keep God’s elect in the truth. I love v. 24. If it were possible, these false messiahs would deceive the elect, meaning those whom God has chosen for eternal life, but it’s not possible. This is because of the promise in 1 John 2:18, 24–27.
Verse 18 warns that there are many antichrists or deceivers in our world, but true Christians have the “anointing” or Holy Spirit, who faithfully teaches us the truth, and we can rest assured that he will keep us in the truth. So be discerning. Run everything you hear and experience through the grid of Scripture. And then trust God to keep you in the truth. So Jesus warns the Tribulation saints that false messiahs will make false claims, but then he encourages them that when the true Messiah comes it will be obvious.
The true Messiah will display true glory (vv. 27–28). Sometimes, it can be a little tricky for us to recognize a false teacher, but Jesus tells the Tribulation saints that will know the true Messiah when you see him.
This is because when the true Messiah returns at the end of the Tribulation, he’s not going to be hiding somewhere in the desert. Instead, he will appear in an obvious, public display of glory.
Jesus compares his coming to a flash of lightning. This is a great illustration, because, a powerful lightning strike grabs your attention. As Jesus says it flashes from the east to the west illuminating the entire sky. For a second the dark night becomes as bright as day.
And Jesus says that when he returns, he will make an obvious display of glory that will demand the world’s attention. Verse 30 adds that “all the tribes of the earth” will recognize what’s happening, not just Christians. They will see something they have never seen before and that will obviously have no natural explanation.
It’s fun to imagine what that day will be like and what exactly the world will see, and later we’ll speculate some more. But for now, notice that Christ’s return will be magnificent, and there won’t be any question about what is happening. The world will know, “That’s Messiah.”
And then 28 adds, “For wherever…” This verse is a bit of head-scratcher because it seems odd that Jesus would compare his return to vultures (that’s the better translation than eagles) circling a dead carcass. But that’s clearly what Jesus is doing. The dead carcass refers to the evil, violent world of the Tribulation that will be battered by 7 years of judgment.
So Jesus is driving home the stench of the Tribulation world. He’s also warning that his return will not be all sunshine and rainbows; it will be a dark day of judgment (like a vulture descending on a rotting carcass) for those who have rebelled against his will.
We’ll also talk about that more in the next section, but for now, let’s circle back to Jesus’ main point. Remember that in 23–26 he warned the Tribulation saints not to believe false signs of falso messiahs. Now in vv. 27–28 he challenges them to wait for a much bigger sign that will make the false messiahs’ tricks look like child’s play. When they see the sign of Christ in the heavens, they’ll know the real thing has come.
That will be such an awesome day for those saints, and they will be so glad they waited for the real thing. And we should also be challenged to wait for the eternal prize of Christ. This world dangles so many carrots in front of our eyes. It promises money, security, lustful pleasures, and human praise.
It all looks so appealing. But when you see Jesus, all of that will look very small. So don’t buy the cheap tricks of this world. Patiently wait for the eternal gifts of Christ, because you will not regret waiting. And so the first important truth about the return of Christ is that Christ’s return will be obvious. Then in vv. 29–31 Jesus tells us a 2nd important truth.
II. Christ’s return will bring judgment and deliverance (vv. 29–31).
In these verses, Jesus finally answers the disciples’ question in v. 3 about the sign of his return. Verse 29 describes…
The Signs of Judgment (v. 29): Notice that Jesus begins his description of the second coming by telling us when it will happen. It will happen, “immediately after the tribulation of those days.” That’s a problem if you think that vv. 4–28 describe the early years of the church, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, because Jesus didn’t come back immediately after those events.
Now some of those people believe vv. 29–31 describe Jesus judging Israel through the Roman invasion of AD 70, but that is quite a stretch. No, Jesus is clearly describing his second coming, and he says it will happen immediately after a unique period of “great tribulation.”
Notice also that the signs in v. 29 indicate that Christ’s return is the culmination of God’s judgment. We may struggle with this, because live in a day where we like to think of God as a gentle grandpa in the sky and of Jesus as my gentle coping mechanism to hand life. But Jesus paints a different picture as he describes the judgments that will surround his return.
All of these judgments have deep roots in OT prophecies about the final Day of the Lord (Is 13:6–12). This passage and others look forward to an awful day of judgment like the world has never seen, and Jesus picks up on Isaiah’s language about cosmic disturbances and clarifies that these awful disasters will immediately precede his return to earth.
Of course, Jesus’ words fill us with curiosity about what exactly this means. If Jesus is speaking literally about the sun moon going dark and stars falling from the sky, then we are obviously talking about terrifying disasters. But while Jesus could be speaking figuratively, there’s no indication in the text that he is not describing literal events.
John MacArthur speculates that God will slightly alter the laws of gravity and thermodynamics. The idea is that the stars, planets, and moons all move very precisely because of these laws. But if they changed at all, the universe would be dramatically altered. God could certainly do such a thing, but it’s impossible to know exactly what will occur. Regardless, that dramatic signs will occur in the heavens in the moments before his return.
But as we try to imagine what it would be like to have the sun darkened and stars falling from heaven, lets not miss what all of this says about the sovereign power of God. Our universe is vast and incredible. The more we learn, the more amazing it becomes. But it is still very small in comparison to God. Isaiah 40:12 compares the heavens to the span of God’s hand. We serve a sovereign God with infinite glory.
But of course, v. 29 also provides a sober picture of God’s just wrath against sin. After all these signs are intended to symbolize God’s judgment on the world as we know it. As I said a moment ago, if our view of God doesn’t include this perspective, then we have compromised his nature.
Hebrews 12:9 says, “Our God is a consuming fire.” He has a holy and fearful hatred of sin. And if we don’t like that, it’s not because something is wrong in God; it’s because we are trying to press God into our mold. So as we imagine the terrifying scene in v. 29, let’s be reminded of God’s holy hatred of sin, and let’s learn to hate our sin the same way. Then v. 30 describes…
The Sign of Messiah (v. 30): This verse expands on what Jesus said in v. 27. He says that “all the tribes of the earth” will see “the sign of the Son of Man.” In other words, they will be able to look up at the sky and see Christ returning. This indicates that the second coming will not be instantaneous like the rapture. Instead, it will be a glorious event that will happen over an extended time, so that as the earth rotates everyone will be able to see it.
Some people have speculated that “sign” Jesus is talking about is some kind of emblem of Christ, maybe even a massive cross. It’s an interesting thought, but I think it is more likely that the sign is the glory of Christ that will light up the sky. After all God’s glory that appears throughout the OT as a bright light symbolizing the glory of God.
Jesus also adds that he will come “on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” This is in keeping with the prophecy of Daniel 7:13–14 regarding Messiah’s second coming before he establishes his kingdom (read). And Revelation 19:11–14 give a fuller picture of the glorious return of Christ to defeat Antichrist and establish his kindgom (read).
Again, it’s going to be an incredible scene. And remarkably, I believe that 14 says that we will ride behind him on white horses. I say that because he describes the riders as “clothed in fine linen, white and clean.” This is a description of a purification that belongs to people, not angels. What an awesome day that will be to follow our Savior into battle.
But while it will be wonderful for us who are following Christ and for the elect who are still on earth, it will be a sad day for the unbelievers on earth. This is because for seven years, the ungodly will shake their fists in God’s face even as they experience his wrath. And Zechariah 14:2 says that just before Christ returns the Antichrist will rally the nations against Jerusalem to destroy the Jews.
But just when it appears that all hope is lost for Israel, the sign of Christ will appear in unmistakable glory, and Jesus says that when the nations see that sign, they will “mourn”—not in repentance but because their day of judgment has come. They will know they are doomed. And Zechariah 14:1–4 describe how Christ will fight for Israel that day.
Revelation 19:15–21 then build off this picture. When Christ returns all of the world’s armies and the military technology that we boast about so greatly will be no match for the Sovereign Son of God. Christ will conquer evil! Righteousness will win. And yes it will be a bloody, terrible scene, but in that day, when we more fully appreciate the darkness of sin and the beauty of God’s holiness, we will rejoice that justice has been served and God has been glorified. Then v. 31 describes…
The Deliverance of the Elect (v. 31): It’s important to clarify that this verse takes place after the Tribulation, after Jesus conquers antichrist and destroys all evil. Therefore, Jesus is not talking about the rapture of the church; rather, Jesus is talking about his care for the elect who are still on the earth at the end of the Tribulation. This will include many Gentiles who have believed the gospel during the Tribulation, and it will also include a large host of Jews. All of them will have endured terrible persecution.
Jesus says he will send out his angels, and they will gather the elect, “from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” In other words, they won’t miss a single one. God will save all of the elect.
He will bring all of these people before Christ. And this moment will be especially significant in God’s purpose for Israel. Zechariah 12:10–14 describe how Israel will respond to the Messiah that they previously crucified (read). Israel will recognize its Messiah on a national scale for the very first time. And Christ will graciously forgive all their sins, and give Israel the kingdom he has promised in the OT and that the disciples desperately longed to see.
It will be the “end of the age” that the disciples asked about in v. 3. Christ will replace the broken evil system of our world with his perfect kingdom where righteousness, truth, and justice will reign like they have not reigned since the Garden of Eden.
And so Jesus declares in this passage he is coming again in glory, judgment, and grace. The world as we know it will not continue forever. No, Christ is coming again to establish his kingdom. So what does all of this mean for us?
First, you all need to ask yourselves, “Am I ready to meet the Lord?” It might be that you have always considered yourself to be a good person, so you assume you are ready. But the coming judgment reminds us that sin is a wicked offence against a holy God, and it deserves wrath.
However, the good news of the gospel is that when Jesus died on the cross, he bore that wrath. He suffered in our place. Therefore, if you are in Christ, you are safe from wrath. You can be secure from God’s judgment today if you will believe on Christ for salvation. John 3:16 states, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Come to Christ in faith so that you can look forward to the return of Christ with excitement instead of fear.
Second, if you are a Christian, stay encouraged and focused through all the darkness of this world. Do you ever feel like evil is winning? It is so easy to be overwhelmed and discouraged by how evil our world is and by how it seems to get worse by the day.
But in reality, evil is not winning. No, God is quietly leading the world toward his appointed, prophesied end. And someday it’s going to get so dark that the world’s armies will gather under a world dictator to destroy Israel. But in that darkest of moments, the light of Christ will appear in the sky, and light will scatter the darkness.
If you are Christian never forget that you are on the winning side. Stay encouraged. And then stay focused on how God has called you to serve him today. Share the gospel like someone who believes that God saves souls and will bring the elect to himself. Make disciples like someone who believes that God will build his church. And live a holy life of Christian service like someone who knows that Christ is coming with his reward, and he will make it worth it all.