Signs of the Times
Topic: Expository Passage: Matthew 24:32-41
Matthew 24:32-41 (NKJV)
32 “Now learn this parable from the fig tree: When its branch has already become tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near.
33 So you also, when you see all these things, know that it is near—at the doors!
34 Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.
35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.
No One Knows the Day or Hour
36 “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only.
37 But as the days of Noah were, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be.
38 For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark,
39 and did not know until the flood came and took them all away, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be.
40 Then two men will be in the field: one will be taken and the other left.
41 Two women will be grinding at the mill: one will be taken and the other left.
How many of you have ever had someone take something you said out of context? It’s frustrating isn’t it? For example, you take 5 minutes to thoughtfully explain yourself, but someone takes one sentence and quotes you out of context to a bunch of people. They imply that you meant something very different from you actually said. It’s maddening and dishonest. But sadly political campaigns, bloggers, and reporters do it all the time to sway public opinion or to attract selfish attention.
And sadly God gets taken out of context maybe more than anyone else. In high school I was involved with Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and one of their slogans was “One Way to Play,” meaning drug free. That’s fine, but they based the theme off John 14:6, where Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” In context, Jesus is clearly talking about the exclusivity of the gospel, not drug free athletes, but whoever chose the theme obviously wasn’t concerned about what Jesus actually meant in context.
Sadly many people also take Jesus’ words in our text out of context. So we want to be careful to understand what Jesus truly meant in the larger context of the Olivet Discourse. And as we do so, by God’s grace, we’ll leave with a better understanding of what is to come in the end times and what it means for us today. With that in mind, notice that Jesus communicates 2 truths regarding his second coming. First, he says in vv. 32–35 that
I. Jesus will return on time (vv. 32–35).
For the sake of context, remember that Jesus is primarily addressing the Jews and Christians who are alive during the future 7-year Tribulation. I emphasize this, because many dispensationalists have been guilty of applying this passage to the rapture of the church before the Tribulation. But in context, Jesus is clearly talking about events that follow the Tribulation.
Therefore, he is specifically telling the Tribulation generation how to respond to the crazy events they will observe as the Tribulation draws to a close. That’s not to say that this passage isn’t relevant for us. But Jesus’ main point in vv. 32–35 is to tell the Tribulation saints that he will return right on time. So first he challenges them to see the signs of Christ’s return.
See the signs (vv. 32–33). Notice that Jesus begins with a parable about a fig tree. Sadly, it was popular in the 1970s and 80s to take it as a prophecy about the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948. But in context, that’s clearly not what Jesus is talking about.
Instead, v. 32 is making a much simpler point. Fig trees were very popular in Israel, both for their fruit and for their shade. But they were also one of the rare native trees native that lost their leaves during the winter. Therefore, it was noticeable in the spring when their branches became tender as the sap began to flow and as leaves began to emerge from the buds.
Every Israelite knew that this was a clear sign that summer was about to arrive. We can relate. I remember how excited we would get as kids when we saw the first robins returning from their winter migration. It meant spring had arrived. We have similar signs here in the desert.
So Jesus says, when you see the fig tree putting on leaves, “You know that summer is near.” It’s an obvious, unmistakable sign. And then in 33, he applies this analogy to the Tribulation generation (read).
So when the Tribulation saints see everything occurring that Jesus described in vv. 4–26—the natural disasters, violence, the abomination of desolation, and the false messiahs, these will be obvious signs that Christ’s return is near. He is right at the door. And it is there responsibility to recognize these signs and know what’s happening.
BTW, Jesus’ wording here is another indication that he has been talking about a 7-year Tribulation that precedes the 2nd After all, if vv. 4–26 are describing the first 40 years or so of the church culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem or even the church age in general, then how do these events function as an obvious sign that Jesus is about to return? But if Jesus is talking about the Tribulation, then “near—right at the door” is immensely impactful.
So in sum, Jesus is challenging the Tribulation saints to recognize what is happening around them with a big picture perspective. This is going to be very important, because when you are suffering like they will suffer, it’s easy to lose sight of the “forest,” so to speak and only see your problems. But if they focus on the big picture of what God is doing and the fact that it all means Jesus is about to return, they will have strong encouragement to keep going and not be discouraged.
But what does this mean for us, because God hasn’t given us nearly as much information about what’s going to precede the rapture as he has about what will happen before his second coming. In fact nothing has to happen before the rapture.
I want to emphasize this because many prophecy buffs like to use vv. 32–33 as justification for constantly reading prophetic significance into current events. But again, in context Jesus is talking about signs that the Tribulation saints will see, not us. Therefore, we should be very careful about trying to match current events with prophecies about the end times.
But at the same time, we need to keep the same “big picture” perspective Jesus demands of the Tribulation generation, where we are always conscious of the fact that God is moving the world toward the end, and that Christ could come at any time.
That’s not natural, because, like the Tribulation saints, life and the pressures of life constantly tug for our attention. Therefore, we must consciously strive to live every day in light of the fact that Christ come today, so I must be ready right now to meet the Lord. So Jesus exhorts the Tribulation saints to see the signs of his second coming. Then he challenges them to…
Trust the Lord (vv. 34–35). I said the first week of this series that how you understand v. 34 is a watershed for how you understand the entire chapter. In particular is “this generation” talking about the apostles’ generation or the Tribulation generation? If Jesus is talking about the apostles’ generation, then most of the OD describes the persecution of the early church culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. If he is talking about the Tribulation generation, then Jesus is describing end times events.
How you answer this debate depends in part on what “all these things” Frankly, it would be very convenient for my view to argue that it refers to everything Jesus has said to this point, including his 2nd coming. This is because if the suffering of vv. 4–26 and the 2nd coming of vv. 27–31 all happen in one generation, Jesus has to be talking about the Tribulation and 2nd coming. But notice that v. 33 uses “all these things,” only to describe the suffering of vv. 4–26, so we should assume that in v. 34 “all these things” also refers to all the tribulations Jesus described in vv. 4–26.
So when will these things happen and what generation is Jesus describing? As I said the first week of the series, those who believe the OD is mostly describing the early church argue strongly that the disciples would certainly have understood “this generation” as describing their generation. They claim there is no way that they would have thought Jesus is describe a future generation. For most, this is their central reason for understanding the OD the way they do.
It’s a strong argument, but if your entire interpretation hinges on identifying the antecedent to a pronoun, it’s hardly convincing. In light of everything we have seen in this series about how the OD complements other prophecies about the 7-year Tribulation and about how so much of what Jesus says doesn’t fit with what happened in the early church, it is much better to understand “this generation” as referring to the generation that will be alive during the Tribulation. Jesus is talking to this coming, beloved generation.
That being said, what is Jesus’ point? It’s pretty simply but full of compassion and significance. So again, the Tribulation saints are going to suffer immensely. And when you are suffering, aren’t you tempted to think that it will never end? It’s like when you have the flu, you begin to think that I will never again feel good. I can remember on multiple occasions trying to rock our kids to sleep at 2 am and feeling like this child will never go to sleep. I am going to rock this child until I die.
And Jesus anticipates that the Tribulation saints will be tempted to think that their suffering will never end. Therefore, he says as a loving Father to a hurting child, “Assuredly, I say to you…” In other words, “Yes, this is extremely hard, but it’s only for a moment. Your suffering will not be long.”
And then he offers further assurance in 35. Folks, this is an incredible promise. Think about a grand the universe is. The sun is massive, and it’s a relatively small star among billions of stars in a massive universe. It’s hard to imagine the universe passing away. But Jesus says his words are more stable than the universe itself. And someday, the universe “will pass away,” but God’s word will stand for all eternity.
Jesus is saying to the Tribulation saints, “You can trust me. I will come to rescue you, so hang in there.” And he is also saying to us that your Bible is more sure than the universe itself. We can trust that it is true and that God will keep every promise he has made. God will keep every promise he has made regarding your salvation and sanctification. He will sustain you through every trial and temptation, and someday he will bring you to glory.
And in particular, Jesus is coming again. You can count on it. He will conquer evil, he will reign in righteousness, and he will reward his people. So don’t live like this is all there is. Endure knowing that Christ is coming with is reward. So in sum, in vv. 32–35 Jesus assures us that he will come again. As a result, in vv. 36–41 he challenges us to…
II. Be prepared for the return of Christ (vv. 36–41).
In these verses, Jesus tells us 2 truths about his return. First…
God has not revealed when Jesus will return (v. 36). Remember that in 3, the disciples wanted to know “when will these things be?” And every generation since has wanted to know the same thing. When is Jesus coming back? Of course many people have tried to predict Christ’s return. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have tried and failed numerous times. Back in the 80s Edgar Whisenant gained a lot of attention among Christians with his book, 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988. Others like Harold Camping have tried and failed in recent years.
Why have they failed, and why should you not listen to anyone who claims to know when Jesus will return? Jesus says, “But of that day…” Now Jesus did just say in vv. 32–33 that there will be obvious signs that Christ’s return is about to happen; therefore, if people are watching world events in light of Scripture, they will know generally that the time is near. But Jesus says that only God knows the specific “day and hour.”
Of course the part of this statement that probably catches our attention is that Jesus includes himself among those who don’t know when the 2nd coming will occur. Most translations of v. 36 say, “No one knows, not even the angels of heaven,nor the Son, but the Father only.” The NKJV doesn’t include “the Son” in the list, but pretty much everyone agrees that it should. Even if the NKJV is correct, Mark 13:32 includes “the Son” in its version of this statement.
So what do we do with that? Is Jesus saying that he is not omniscient or all knowing? If he is, does that mean he is not truly God? The simple is no. This is because the NT teaches that when Jesus became a man, he temporarily laid aside the full exercise of his divine attributes. As God, Jesus is omniscient, but as a man, Jesus didn’t always exercise his omniscience. At times while Jesus was on earth, he didn’t know certain things.
Now, if you are sitting there trying to fully grasp how that works, stop it. There is no way our finite minds can comprehend God’s infinite attributes or the incarnation. We just have to trust what God says.
And then in this instance, we need to make sure we don’t miss the bigger point, which is that we can’t know exactly when end times events will occur. So don’t listen to someone who claims to know, and don’t waste your time looking for hidden signs in Scripture.
It’s also worth asking why God hasn’t told us. Only God knows, but it’s safe to assume that it wouldn’t be good for us to know. Maybe it would scare us out of our minds. I’m sure many would procrastinate serving Christ and indulge the flesh. God knows that we are better off not knowing. Instead, he wants us to live every day with the realization that Christ could come today, so I need to serve him today with no regrets and with all my heart. Then in vv. 37–41, Jesus tells us a second truth about his return.
Unbelievers will not be prepared (vv. 37–41). Before we get into Jesus’ primary point, I do want to note that Jesus clearly affirms that the story of Noah as presented in Genesis is an accurate record of historical events. I say that because more and more professing believers claim that Genesis 1–11 are some kind of allegory that we shouldn’t read literally.
But if they are right, Jesus is wrong. So that thinking may make the Bible more palatable to the modern mind, but it seriously erodes the foundation of our faith. If Jesus is wrong, we’ve got bigger problems than secular science.
That being said, notice that Jesus compares the Tribulation world to Noah’s world. 2 Peter 2:5 calls Noah “a preacher of righteousness.” For 120 years Noah built the ark, and throughout that entire time, he warned people that judgment was coming and that they needed to repent.
But no one listened; instead, 38 says, “They were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage.” They just want about their normal business as if judgment wasn’t really coming. And Jesus says that they didn’t believe up until the moment when the floodwaters rushed over them and “took them all away” to their deaths.
It’s a sad picture, but Jesus says the Tribulation generation will repeat the same mistake. For seven years they will endure judgment after judgment and see sign after sign. But they will refuse to acknowledge what is obvious. Revelation 16:11 says, “They blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, and did not repent of their deeds.”
It’s shocking, because it’s hard to believe that anyone wouldn’t repent and believe after all they will endure. But the depraved hearts of sinners have an incredible capacity to deny obvious truth about God.
I’m reminded of the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. When the rich man wakes up in hell, he begs Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his family. Luke 16:29–31 state, “Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.’” Sinners will just find a way to deny the truth.
In the same way, most people who are alive during the Tribulation will refuse to believe, and they will just continue on with the normal course of life until it is too late. Notice how Jesus describes their end in 40–41.
These verses are also often taken out of context, because people assume they describe the rapture of the church. But in context, they clearly the second coming. And in this instance, it’s not the godly who are taken to glory but the ungodly who are taken to judgment. I say that, because in 39 the ungodly are taken away in judgment by the flood, and we should assume it’s the same in vv. 40–41.
So the idea is that during the Tribulation, unbelievers will ignore the warnings of righteous preachers and the obvious signs around them. Instead, they will go about their normal affairs like working in the field and grinding grain. They will be totally unprepared when Christ returns and they are suddenly swept away in judgment.
Maybe there is someone here today who is making the same tragic mistake. You have heard the warnings of the gospel over and over, but you refuse to believe, or you just keep putting it off. Do not be a fool. See that God’s Word is true and that God will keep his promise. Jesus is coming to judge the world, and you do not want to face his judgment on your own. You need salvation. And there is salvation in Christ for all who believe the gospel.
One of the blessings of the gospel is that I can look forward the Lord’s return with excitement instead of fear, because I am secure in Christ! And if you believe on Christ you can leave today with this wonderful security. So come to him today and be saved!
And if you are saved, how you ought to rejoice that you can look forward to the return of Christ with joy instead of fear, because you are secure in his grace.
But beyond that, let’s take heed to the parable of the fig tree, as it concerns the rapture. Ultimately, we have no idea when the rapture will occur, but we ought to be able to look at the growing corruption in our world and see the signs that Christ’s return is getting closer and closer.
We need to live with an end times awareness, and that awareness must drive us to live ready for the return of Christ. Don’t wait for the perfect opportunity to share the gospel with that loved one. Make an opportunity very soon. Don’t wait for that estranged loved one to wake up to how they hurt you; instead pursue reconciliation and peace. And then heed Jesus challenge in Matthew 6:19–21, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” Live for the eternal reward of Christ.