Matthew 24 Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Matthew 24
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
And Jesus went out, and departed from the temple: and his disciples came to him for to shew him the buildings of the temple.
XXIV.

(1) And Jesus went out.—Better, following the best MSS., Jesus departed from the Temple, and was going on His way, when His disciples. St. Mark and St. Luke report the touching incident of the widow’s mite as connected with our Lord’s departure.

His disciples came to him.—We may well think of their action as following on the words they had just heard. Was that house, with all its goodly buildings and great stones, its golden and its “beautiful” gates (Acts 3:2)—through which they had probably passed—its porticos, its marble cupolas, the structural and ornamental offerings which had accumulated during the forty-six years that had passed since Herod had begun his work of improvement (John 2:20), to be left “desolate”? Would not the sight of its glories lead Him to recall those words of evil omen? This seems a far more natural explanation than that which sees in what they were doing only the natural wonder of Galilean peasants at the splendour of the Holy City. They had seen it too often, we may add, to feel much wonder.

And Jesus said unto them, See ye not all these things? verily I say unto you, There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.
(2) There shall not be left here one stone upon another.—So Josephus relates that Titus ordered the whole city and the Temple to be dug up, leaving only two or three of the chief towers, so that those who visited it could hardly believe that it had ever been inhabited (Wars, vii. 1). The remains which recent explorations have disinterred belong, all of them, to the substructures of the Temple—its drains, foundations, underground passages, and the like. The words fell on the ears of the disciples, and awed them into silence. It was not till they had crossed the Mount of Olives that even the foremost and most favoured ventured to break it.

And as he sat upon the mount of Olives, the disciples came unto him privately, saying, Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?
(3) The disciples came unto him privately.—From St. Mark we learn their names—“Peter, and James, and John, and Andrew;” i.e., the four in the first of the three groups that made up the Twelve. The position of Andrew as the last is noticeable, as connected with the general pre-eminence of the first three.

The sign of thy coming.—Literally, of Thy presence. The passage is memorable as the first occurrence of the word (παρονσία, parousia), which was so prominent in the teaching of the Epistles (1Thessalonians 2:19; 1Thessalonians 3:13; James 5:7; 1John 2:28, et al.). They had brought themselves to accept the thought of His departure and return, though time and manner were as yet hidden from them.

The end of the world.—Literally, the end of the age. In the common language of the day, which had passed from the schools of the Rabbis into popular use, “this age,” or “this world,” meant the time up to the coming of the Messiah; the “age or world to come” (Matthew 13:40; Matthew 19:28; Hebrews 2:5; Hebrews 6:5), the glorious time which He was to inaugurate. The disciples had heard their Lord speak in parables of such a coming, and they naturally connected it in their thoughts with the close of the age or period in which they lived.

And Jesus answered and said unto them, Take heed that no man deceive you.
(4) Jesus answered and said unto them . . .—The great discourse which follows is given with substantial agreement by St. Mark and St. Luke, the variations being such as were naturally incident to reports made from memory, and probably after an interval of many years. In all probability, the written record came, in the first instance, from the lips of St. Peter, and it will accordingly be instructive to compare its eschatology, or “teaching as to the last things,” with that which we find in his discourses and epistles. St. Paul’s reference to “the day of the Lord “coming” as a thief in the night” (1Thessalonians 5:2) suggests the inference that its substance had become known at a comparatively early date; but it was probably not published, i.e., not thrown as a document into circulation, among Christian Jews, till the time was near when its warnings would be needed; and this may, in part, account for the variations with which it then appeared.

For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many.
(5) Many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ.—Better, the Christ. No direct fulfilments of this prediction are recorded, either in the New Testament, or by Josephus, or other historians. Bar-Cochba (the “son of the star”), who claimed to be the “Star” of the prophecy of Balaam (Numbers 24:17), is often named as a fulfilment; but he did not appear till A.D. 120—nearly 50 years after the destruction of Jerusalem. In the excited fanaticism of the time, however, it was likely enough that such pretenders should arise and disappear, after each had lived out his little day, and fill no place in history. The “many antichrists, i.e., rival Christs, of 1John 2:18, may point to such phenomena; possibly, also, the prophecy of 2Thessalonians 2:4. Theudas (the last rebel of that name—not the one named in Acts 5:36, but by Josephus, Ant. xx. 5), or “the Egyptian” of Acts 21:38, may possibly have mingled Messianic claims with their pretensions, but there is no evidence of it.

And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.
(6) Ye shall hear . . .—Literally, ye shall be about to hear—a kind of double future, or possibly an example of the transition between the older future tense and the use of an auxiliary verb.

Wars and rumours.—St. Luke adds “commotions.” The forty years that intervened before the destruction of Jerusalem were full of these in all directions; but we may probably think of the words as referring specially to wars, actual or threatened, that affected the Jews, such, e.g., as those of which we read under Caligula, Claudius, and Nero (Jos. Ant. xx. 1, 6). The title which the historian gave to his second book, “The Wars of the Jews,” is sufficiently suggestive. As the years passed on, the watchword, “Be not troubled,” must have kept the believers in Christ calm in the midst of agitation. They were not to think that the end was to follow at once upon the wars which were preparing the way for it.

For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places.
(7) Nation shall rise against nation.—Some of the more memorable of these are recorded by Josephus: one at Seleucia, in which 50,000 Jews are said to have perished (Ant. xviii. 9, §§ 8, 9); others at Cæsarea, Scythopolis, Joppa, Ascalon, and Tyre (Wars 2:18); and the memorable conflict between Jews and Greeks at Alexandria, under Caligula, A.D. 38, of which we learn from Philo. The whole period was, indeed, marked by tumults of this kind.

Famines.—Of these we know that of which Agabus prophesied (Acts 11:28), and which was felt severely, in the ninth year of Claudius, not only in Syria, but in Rome (Jos. Ant. xx. 2). Suetonius (Claud. c. 18) speaks of the reign of that emperor as marked by “continual scarcity.”

Pestilences.—The word is not found in the best MSS., and has probably been inserted from the parallel passage in Luke 21:11. It was, however, the inevitable attendant on famine, and the Greek words for the two (λιμὸς, and λοιμὸς, limos and loimos) were so like each other that the omission may possibly have been an error of transcription. A pestilence is recorded as sweeping off 30,000 persons at Rome (Sueton. Nero, 39; Tacitus, Ann. xvi. 13).

Earthquakes, in divers places.—Perhaps no period in the world’s history has ever been so marked by these convulsions as that which intervenes between the Crucifixion and the destruction of Jerusalem. Josephus records one in Judæa (Wars, iv. 4, § 5); Tacitus tells of them in Crete, Rome, Apamea, Phrygia, Campania (Ann. xii. 58; xiv. 27; xv. 22); Seneca (Ep. 91), in A.D. 58, speaks of them as extending their devastations over Asia (the proconsular province, not the continent), Achaia, Syria, and Macedonia.

All these are the beginning of sorrows.
(8) The beginning of sorrows.—The words mean strictly, the beginning of travail pangs. The troubles through which the world passes are thought of as issuing in a “new birth”—the “regeneration” of Matthew 19:28. So St. Paul speaks of the whole creation as “travailing in pain together” (Romans 8:22). So a time of national suffering and perplexity is one in which “the children are come to the birth, and there is not strength to bring forth” (Isaiah 37:3).

Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name's sake.
(9) Then shall they deliver . . .—The adverb, here and in Matthew 24:10, points to synchronism rather than sequence in its connection with Matthew 24:8.

To be afflicted.—Literally, unto affliction. The words repeat in substance the predictions of Matthew 10:22. (See Notes there.) Here we have “hated of all the nations,” i.e., heathen nations, instead of the wider “hated of all men.” So, when Paul reached Rome, the “sect” of the Christians was “everywhere spoken against” (Acts 28:22) “as evildoers” (1Peter 2:12). So, a little later on, Tacitus describes them as “hated for their crimes” (Ann. xv. 44).

And then shall many be offended, and shall betray one another, and shall hate one another.
(10) Shall many be offended.—The words point primarily to those who were believers in Christ, and found, a stumbling-block either in the new aspects of truth from time to time presented, or in the slowness of its victory, or in the delayed coming of the Lord. (Comp. 2Peter 3:4.)

Shall hate one another.—The words received a terrible fulfilment in the faction-fights of the Zealots and Sicarii at Jerusalem (Jos. Wars, iv. 3), in the disputes in every city between believing and unbelieving Jews (Acts 13:50; Acts 14:19; Acts 17:5; Acts 18:6; Acts 19:9), in the bitter hatred of the Judaisers against St. Paul (Acts 23:12).

And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many.
(11) Many false prophets shall rise.—The later writings of the New Testament bear repeated testimony to this feature of the ten years that preceded the destruction of Jerusalem. St. John speaks of false prophets (1John 4:1), and many antichrists (1John 2:18); St. Peter of “false teachers” (2Peter 2:1), like the false prophets of old; St. Paul of men who should give heed to seducing spirits (1Timothy 4:1). These show the extent of the evil which was the natural outcome of the feverish excitement of the people. In Josephus (Wars, vi. 5, § 2) we have the record of this working of false prophecy in more immediate connection with Judæa and Jerusalem. Up to the last moment of the capture of the city by Titus, men were buoyed up with false hopes of deliverance, based on the predictions of fanatics and impostors.

And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.
(12) Because iniquity shall abound . . .—Better, lawlessness. No word could more fitly represent the condition of Judæa in the time just referred to: brigandage, massacres, extortion, assassination, came to be common things.

The love of many . . .—Better, of the many; the greater part of the true Israel who would be found in the Church of Christ; perhaps, also, the greater part of the nation as such. This was the natural result of the condition of things implied in the “lawlessness.” The tendency of all such times, as seen in the histories of famines, and pestilences, and revolutions, is to intensify selfishness, both in the more excusable form of self-preservation, and in the darker form of self-aggrandisement. In the tendency to “forsake the assembling of themselves together” among the Hebrew Christians, we have, perhaps, one instance of the love waxing cold (Hebrews 10:25).

But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved.
(13) He that shall endure unto the end . . .—The words have at once a higher and lower sense. Endurance to the end of life is in every case the condition of salvation, in the full meaning of the word. But the context rather leads us to see in the “end” the close of the period of which our Lord speaks, i.e., the destruction of Jerusalem; and so the words “shall be saved” at least include deliverance from the doom of those who were involved in that destruction.

And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.
(14) Shall be preached in all the world.—The words must not be strained beyond the meaning which they would have for those who heard them, and they were certain to see in “all the world” (literally, the inhabited earth, as in Luke 2:1; Acts 11:28) neither more nor less than the Roman empire; and it was true, as a matter of fact, that there was hardly a province of the empire in which the faith of Christ had not been preached before the destruction of Jerusalem. Special attention should be given to the words, “a witness unto all the nations,” i.e., to all the Gentiles, as an implicit sanction of the work of which St. Paul was afterwards the great representative. So taken, the words prepare the way for the great mission of Matthew 28:19.

When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the holy place, (whoso readeth, let him understand:)
(15) The abomination of desolation.—The words, as they stand in Daniel 12:11, seem to refer to the desecration of the sanctuary by the mad attempt of Antiochus Epiphanes to stop the “daily sacrifice,” and to substitute an idolatrous worship in its place (2 Maccabees 6:1-9). What analogous desecration our Lord’s words point to, is a question that has received very different answers. We may at once narrow the range of choice by remembering (1) that it is before the destruction of the Temple, and therefore cannot be the presence of the plundering troops, or of the eagles of the legions in it; (2) that the “abomination” stands in the “Holy Place,” and therefore it cannot be identified with the appearance of the Roman eagles in the lines of the besieging legions under Cestius, A.D. 68. The answer is probably to be found in the faction-fights, the murders and outrages, the profane consecration of usurping priests, which the Jewish historian describes so fully (Jos. Wars, iv. 6, §§ 6-8). The Zealots had got possession of the Temple at an early stage in the siege, and profaned it by these and other like outrages; they made the Holy Place (in the very words of the historian) “a garrison and stronghold” of their tyrannous and lawless rule; while the better priests looked on from afar and wept tears of horror. The mysterious prediction of 2Thessalonians 2:4 may point, in the first instance, to some kindred “abomination.”

The words “spoken of by Daniel the prophet” have been urged as absolutely decisive of the questions that have been raised as to the authorship of the book that bears the name of that prophet. This is not the place to discuss those questions, but it is well in all cases not to put upon words a strain which they will scarcely bear. It has been urged, with some degree of reasonableness, that a reference of this kind was necessarily made to the book as commonly received and known, and that critical questions of this kind, as in reference to David as the writer of the Psalms, or Moses as the author of the books commonly ascribed to him, lay altogether outside the scope of our Lord’s teaching. The questions themselves had not been then raised, and were not present to the thoughts either of the hearers or the readers of his prophetic warnings.

Whoso readeth, let him understand.—The words have been supposed by some commentators to have been a marginal note in the first written report of the discourse, calling attention to this special prediction on account of its practical bearing on the action of the disciples of Christ at the time. There appears, however, to be no sufficient reason why they should not be received as part of the discourse itself, bidding one who read the words of Daniel to ponder over their meaning till he learnt to recognise their fulfilment in the events that should pass before his eyes.

Then let them which be in Judaea flee into the mountains:
(16) Then let them which be in Judsea.—The words were acted on when the time came. Eusebius (Hist. Eccl. iii. 5) records that the Christians of Judæa, acting “on a certain oracle,” fled, in A.D. 68, to Pella, a town on the northern boundary of Peræa. So Josephus (Wars, iv. 9, § 1; v. 10, § 1) more generally relates that many of the more conspicuous citizens fled from the city, as men abandon a sinking ship. The “mountains” may be named generally as a place of refuge, or may point, as interpreted by the event, to the Gilead range of hills on the east of Jordan.

Let him which is on the housetop not come down to take any thing out of his house:
(17) Let him which is on the housetop.—The houses in the streets of Jerusalem were built in a continuous line, and with flat roofs, so that a man might pass from house to house without descending into the street until he came to some point near the wall or gate of the city, and so make his escape. At a moment of danger (in this case that arising from the factions within the city, rather than the invaders without), any delay might prove fatal. Men were to escape as though their life were “given them for a prey” (Jeremiah 45:5), without thinking of their goods or chattels.

Neither let him which is in the field return back to take his clothes.
(18) To take his clothes.—Better, in the singular, his cloak. The man would be working in the field with the short tunic of the labouring peasant, leaving the flowing outer garment at home in the city. Here also the flight was to be rapid and immediate.

And woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days!
(19) Woe unto them.—Better, alas for them, or woe for them. The tone is that of pity rather than denunciation. The hardships of a hurried flight would press most heavily on those who were encumbered with infant children, or were expecting childbirth. The same tenderness of sympathy shows itself in the words spoken to the daughters of Jerusalem in Luke 23:28-29. Perhaps the words point to the darker horrors of the siege, when mothers were driven, in the frenzy of starvation, to feed on their infants’ flesh (Jos. Wars, vi. 3, § 4).

But pray ye that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the sabbath day:
(20) Pray ye that your flight . . .—Rules were given for flight where the conditions lay within their own power. Other incidents which lay outside their will might lawfully be the subjects of their prayers. It is characteristic of St. Matthew, as writing for Jews, that he alone records the words “nor on the Sabbath day.” Living as the Christians of Judæa did in the strict observance of the Law, they would either be hindered by their own scruples from going beyond a Sabbath day’s journey (about one English mile), which would be insufficient to place them out of the reach of danger, or would find impediments—gates shut, and the like—from the Sabbath observance of others.

For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be.
(21) Such as was not since the beginning . . .—The words come from Daniel 12:1. One who reads the narrative of Josephus will hardly hesitate to adopt his language, “that all miseries that had been known from the beginning of the world fell short” of those of the siege of the Holy City (Wars, v. 13, §§ 4, 5). Other sieges may have witnessed, before and since, scenes of physical wretchedness equally appalling, but nothing that history records offers anything parallel to the alternations of fanatic hope and frenzied despair that attended the breaking up of the faith and polity of Israel.

And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect's sake those days shall be shortened.
(22) Should no flesh be saved.—The words are of course limited by the context to the scene of the events to which the prophecy refers. The warfare with foes outside the city, and the faction-fights and massacres within, would have caused an utter depopulation of the whole country.

For the elect’s sake.—Those who, as believers in Jesus, were the “remnant” of the visible Israel, and therefore the true Israel of God. It was for the sake of the Christians of Judæa, not for that of the rebellious Jews, that the war was not protracted, and that Titus, under the outward influences of Josephus and Bernice, tempered his conquests with compassion (Ant. xii. 3, § 2; Wars, vi. 9, § 2). The new prominence which the idea of an election gains in our Lord’s later teaching is every way remarkable. (Comp. Matthew 18:7; Matthew 20:6). The “call” had been wide; in those who received and obeyed it He taught men to recognise the “elect” whom God had chosen. Subtle questions as to whether the choice rested on foreknowledge or was absolutely arbitrary lay, if we may reverently so speak, outside the scope of His teaching.

Then if any man shall say unto you, Lo, here is Christ, or there; believe it not.
(23) Lo, here is Christ, or there.—Better, Lo, here is the Christ. The narrative of Josephus, while speaking of many deceivers” claiming divine authority (Wars, ii. 13, § 4), is silent as to any pretenders to the character of the Messiah. It is scarcely conceivable, however, that this should not have been one of the results of the fevered dreams of the people, and the reticence of the historian was probably a suppressio veri connected with his own recognition of Vespasian as a quasi Christ (Wars, vi. 5, § 4).

For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.
(24) Shall shew great signs and wonders.—Simon Magus (Acts 8:9-11) and Elymas (Acts 13:6) may be taken as representative instances of these false claimants to supernatural powers. So “signs and lying wonders” are the notes of the coming of the Wicked One, in whom the mystery of iniquity shall receive its full development (2Thessalonians 2:9). But for the warning thus given, even the “elect”—i.e., the Christians of Judæa and Jerusalem—might have been carried away by the current of popular delusions.

Wherefore if they shall say unto you, Behold, he is in the desert; go not forth: behold, he is in the secret chambers; believe it not.
(26) In the secret chambers.—The word is the same as that translated “closet” in Matthew 6:6. What is meant is that the pretenders will in some way or other shun the publicity which would test their claims. There would be whispered rumours that the Christ was concealing Himself in the wilderness beyond the Jordan, or in the inner recesses of some zealot’s house, and would at the last moment appear to claim the throne of His father David. (Comp. Jos. Wars, vi. 5, § 2). Believers in Christ would hear such words with a calm indifference, for they would know that such was not to be the manner of His approach.

For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.
(27) As the lightning cometh out of the east.—In this and the three preceding verses we are, as it were, on the dim border-land of the primary and the ultimate fulfilments of the words. The disciples in their questions (Matthew 24:3) had connected the destruction of Jerusalem with the “coming” of their Lord, and the two are connected even in His own words and thoughts. In whatever way He came, whether in the final destruction of the Temple and polity of Israel, or at the end of the world’s great drama, the advent would be sudden and unlooked-for as the lightning-flash. The crises of the world’s history, which are the “springing and germinant accomplishments” of such words as these, are always unexpected by the great mass of mankind, even though the few whose eyes are opened can discern the signs of the times, and know that their “redemption draweth nigh.”

For wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together.
(28) Wheresoever the carcase is.—Two interpretations of this verse may, without much risk of error, be at once rejected:—(1) That which sees in the “eagles” the well-known symbols of the strength of the Roman legions, and in the “carcass” the decayed and corrupted Judaism which those legions came to destroy. This, true as far as it goes, is too narrow and localised in its range for so wide and far-reaching a comparison. (2) The strange fantastic imagination of many of the Fathers that the “carcass” is Christ Himself, as crucified and slain, and that the eagles are His true saints and servants who hasten to meet Him in His coming. Those who picture to themselves with what purpose and with what results the vultures of the East swoop down on the carrion which they scent far off upon the breeze, will surely find such an explanation at once revolting and irrational. What the enigmatic proverb (if indeed it be enigmatic) means, is that wherever life is gone, wherever a church or nation is decaying and putrescent, there to the end of time will God’s ministers of vengeance, the vultures that do their work of destruction, and so leave room for new forms of life by sweeping off that which was “ready to vanish away” (comp. Hebrews 8:13 for the phrase and thought), assuredly be found. What the disciples should witness in the fall of Jerusalem would repeat itself scores of times in the world’s history, and be fulfilled on the largest scale at the end of all things. The words of Isaiah (Isaiah 46:11) and Ezekiel (Ezekiel 39:4), in which the “ravenous bird” is a symbol of the nations who do the work of destruction to which God sends them, illustrate the meaning of the generalised law which is here asserted.

Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken:
(29) Immediately after the tribulation of those days.—From this point onwards the prophecy takes a wider range, and passes beyond the narrow limits of the destruction of Jerusalem to the final coming of the Son of Man, and the one is represented as following “immediately” on the other. No other meaning could have been found in the words when they were first heard or read. The “days” of this verse are those which were shortened “for the elect’s sake” (Matthew 24:22). The “tribulation” can be none other than that of Matthew 24:21, which was emphatically connected with the flight of men from the beleaguered city. The language of St. Mark, “in those days, after that tribulation,” followed by a description of the second Advent identical in substance with St. Matthew’s, brings the two events, if possible, into yet closer juxtaposition. How are we to explain the fact that already more than eighteen centuries have rolled away, and “the promise of His coming” still tarries? It is a partial answer to the question to say that God’s measurements of time are not as man’s, and that with Him “a thousand years are as one day” (2Peter 3:8); that there is that in God which answers to the modification of a purpose in man, and now postpones, now hastens, the unfolding of His plan. But that which may seem the boldest answer is also (in the judgment of the present writer) that which seems the truest and most reverential. Of that “day and hour” knew no man, “not even the Son” (Mark 13:32), “but the Father only” (Matthew 24:36); and therefore He, as truly man, and as having, therefore, vouchsafed to accept the limitations of knowledge incident to man’s nature, speaks of the two events as poets and prophets speak of the far-off future. As men gazing from a distance see the glittering heights of two snow crowned mountains apparently in close proximity, and take no account of the vast tract, it may be of very many miles, which lies between them; so it was that those whose thoughts must have been mainly moulded on this prediction, the Apostles and their immediate disciples, though they were too conscious of their ignorance Of “the times and the seasons” to fix the day or year, lived and died in the expectation that it was not far off, and that they might, by prayer and acts, hasten its coming (2Peter 3:12). (See Note on Matthew 24:36.)

Shall the sun be darkened.—The words reproduce the imagery in which Isaiah had described the day of the Lord’s judgment upon Babylon (Isaiah 13:10), and may naturally receive the same symbolic interpretation. Our Lord speaks here in language as essentially apocalyptic as that of the Revelation of St. John (Revelation 8:12), and it lies in the very nature of such language that it precludes a literal interpretation. Even the common speech of men describes a time of tribulation as one in which “the skies are dark” and “the sun of a nation’s glory sets in gloom;” and the language of Isaiah, of St. John, and of our Lord, is but the expansion of that familiar parable. Sun, moon, and stars may represent, as many have thought, kingly power, and the spiritual influence of which the Church of Christ is the embodiment, and the illuminating power of those who “shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:15), but even this interpretation is, it may be, over-precise and technical, and the words are better left in their dim and terrible vagueness.

The powers of the heavens.—These are, it will be noted, distinguished from the “stars,” and may be taken as the apocalyptic expression for the laws or “forces” by which moon and stars are kept in their appointed courses. The phrase is found elsewhere only in the parallel passages in St. Mark and St. Luke.

And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.
(30) Then shall appear the sign of the Son of man.—Can we picture to ourselves what this sign shall be? Is it distinct from the coming of the Son of Man which here is so closely united with it? Men have given wildly conjectural answers to these questions, and have dreamt of the cross as appearing in the sky (as if the vision of Constantine were to be reproduced in the last days), or the lightning flash that shall dazzle all men with its brightness, or of some visible manifestation which none can imagine till it shall come. The vision of Daniel 7:13 supplies, it is believed, the true answer. The sign of the Son of Man is none other than the presence of the Son of Man Himself, coming in the clouds of heaven, in the ineffable glory of His majesty. And here, too, we must remember that we are still in the region of apocalyptic symbols. All such imagery falls short of the ultimate reality, and a “sign in heaven” is something more than a visible appearance in the sky.

Then shall all the tribes of the earth.—It lies in the nature of the case, that the “tribes” are those who have done evil, and who therefore dread the coming of the Judge. The words find their best comment in Revelation 1:7, where St. John combines them freely with the prediction of Zechariah 12:10, “They also which pierced Him,” obviously including not only those who were sharers in the actual “piercing” of the crucified body of the Lord Jesus (John 19:37), but all who in any age “crucify the Son of God afresh” (Hebrews 6:6).

And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
(31) He shall send his angels.—The words are memorable as the formal expansion of what had been, as it were, hinted before in the parables of the Tares (Matthew 13:41) and the Net (Matthew 13:49).

With a great sound of a trumpet.—The better MSS. omit “sound:” With a great trumpet. We know not, and cannot know, what reality will answer to this symbol, but it is interesting to note how deeply it impressed itself on the minds not only of the disciples who heard it, but of those who learnt it from them. When St. Paul speaks of the “trumpet” that shall “sound” (1Corinthians 15:52), of “the voice of the archangel and the trump of God” (1Thessalonians 4:16), we feel that he was reproducing what had been thus proclaimed, and that his eschatology, or doctrine of the last things, was based on a knowledge of, at least, the substance of the great prophetic discourse recorded in the Gospels.

They shall gather together his elect.—The “elect” are the same in idea, though not necessarily the same individuals, as those for whom the days were to be shortened in Matthew 24:22; and the work of the angels is that of gathering them, wherever they may be scattered, into the one fold. As with so many of the pregnant germs of thought in this chapter, the work of the angels is expanded by the visions of the Apocalypse, when the seer beheld the angels come and seal the hundred and forty-four thousand in their foreheads before the work of judgment should begin (Revelation 7:2). In each case the elect are those who are living on the earth at the time of the second Advent. In these chapters there is, indeed, no distinct mention of the resurrection of the dead, though they, as well as the living, are implied in the parable of judgment with which the discourse ends.

Now learn a parable of the fig tree; When his branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is nigh:
(32) Now learn a parable of the fig tree.—As in so many other instances (comp. Notes on John 8:12; John 10:1), we may think of the words as illustrated by a living example. Both time and place make this probable. It was on the Mount of Olives, where then, as now, fig trees were found as well as olives (Matthew 21:19), and the season was that of early spring, when “the flowers appear on the earth” and the “fig tree putteth forth her green figs” (Song Song of Solomon 2:11-13). And what our Lord teaches is that as surely as the fresh green foliage of the fig tree is a sign of summer, so shall the signs of which He speaks portend the coming of the Son of Man.

So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors.
(33) So likewise ye.—The pronoun is emphatic. Ye whom I have chosen, who are therefore among the elect that shall be thus gathered. The words are spoken to the four Apostles as the representatives of the whole body of believers who should be living—first, at the destruction of Jerusalem, and afterwards at the end of the world. Of the four, St. John alone, so far as we know, survived the destruction of Jerusalem.

That it is near.—Better, that He is near, in accordance with James 5:9.

Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.
(34) This generation shall not pass . . .—The natural meaning of the words is, beyond question. that which takes “generation” in the ordinary sense (as in Matthew 1:17, Acts 13:36, and elsewhere) for those who are living at any given period. So it was on “this generation” (Matthew 23:36) that the accumulated judgments were to fall. The desire to bring the words into more apparent harmony with history has led some interpreters to take “generation” in the sense of “race” or “people,” and so to see in the words a prophecy of the perpetuity of the existence of the Jews as a distinct people till the end of the world. But for this meaning there is not the shadow of authority; nor does it remove the difficulty which it was invented to explain. The words of Matthew 16:28 state the same fact in language which does not admit of any such explanation.

Till all these things be fulfilled.—Better, till all these things come to pass. The words do not necessarily imply more than the commencement of a process, the first unrolling of the scroll of the coming ages.

Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.
(35) Heaven and earth.—The tone is that of One who speaks with supreme authority, foreseeing, on the one hand, death and seeming failure, but on the other, the ultimate victory, not of truth only in the abstract, but of His own word as the truth. The parallelism of the words with those of Psalm 102:26, Isaiah 40:8, gives them their full significance. The Son of Man claims for His own words the eternity which belongs to the words of Jehovah. (Comp. 1Peter 1:24-25.) The whole history of Christendom witnesses to the fulfilment of the prophetic claim. Amid all its changes and confusions, its errors and its sins, the words of Christ have not passed away, but retain their pre-eminence as the last and fullest revelation of the Father.

But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.
(36) No, not the angels of heaven.—St. Mark’s addition (Mark 13:32), “neither the Son”—or better, not even the Son—is every way remarkable. Assuming, what is well-nigh certain (see Introduction to St. Mark), the close connection of that Gospel with St. Peter, it is as if the Apostle who heard the discourse desired, for some special reason, to place on record the ipsissima verba of his Master. And that reason may be found in his own teaching. The over-eager expectations of some, and the inevitable reaction of doubt and scorn in others, both rested on their assumption that the Son of Man had definitely fixed the time of His appearing, and on their consequent forgetfulness of the “long-suffering” which might extend a day into a thousand years (2Peter 3:3-8). It is obviously doing violence to the plain meaning of the words to dilute them into the statement that the Son of Man did, not communicate the knowledge which He possessed as the Son of God. If we are perplexed at the mystery of this confession in One in whom we recosniise the presence of “the fulness of the Godhead bodily” (Colossians 1:19; Colossians 2:9), we may find that which may help us at least to wait patiently for the full understanding of the mystery in St. Paul’s teaching, that the eternal Word in becoming flesh, “emptied Himself” (see Note on Philippians 2:7) of the infinity which belongs to the divine attributes, and took upon Him the limitations necessarily incidental to man’s nature, even when untainted by evil and in fullest fellowship, through the Eternal Spirit, with the Father.

But as the days of Noe were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.
(37) As the days of Noe were.—Here again we note an interesting coincidence with the Epistles of St. Peter, both of which teem, more than any other portions of the New Testament, with references to the history to which the mind of the writer had been directed by his Master’s teaching, 1Peter 3:20; 2Peter 2:5; 2Peter 3:6. This is, perhaps, all the more noticeable from the fact that the report of the discourse in St. Mark does not give the reference, neither indeed does that in St. Luke, but substitutes for it a general warning-call to watchfulness and prayer. Possibly (though all such conjectures are more or less arbitrary) the two Evangelists who were writing for the Gentile Christians were led to omit the allusion to a history which was not so familiar to those whom they had in view as it was to the Hebrew readers of St. Matthew’s Gospel.

And knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.
(39) So shall also the coming of the Son of man be.—The words justify the interpretation given above of Matthew 24:29-30. If the “signs” of the Advent were to be phenomena visible to the eye of sense, there could not be this reckless apathy of nescience. If they are to be tokens, “signs of the times,” which can be discerned only by the illumined insight of the faithful, the hardened unbelief on the one side, and the expectant watchfulness on the other, are the natural result of the power or the want of power to discern them.

Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left.
(40) The one shall be taken.—Literally, the present tense being used to express the certainty of the future, one is taken, and one is left. The form of the expression is somewhat obscure, and leaves it uncertain which of the two alternatives is the portion of the chosen ones. Is the man who is “taken” received into fellowship with Christ, while the other is abandoned? or is he carried away as by the storm of judgment, while the other is set free? On the whole, the use of the Greek word in other passages (as, e.g., in Matthew 1:20; Matthew 1:24; Matthew 12:45; John 1:11; John 14:3) is in favour of the former interpretation. What is taught in any case is that the day of judgment will be, as by an inevitable law, a day of separation, according to the diversity of character which may exist in the midst of the closest fellowship in outward life.

Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, and the other left.
(41) Two women shall be grinding at the mill.—The words bring before us the picture of the lowest form of female labour, in which one woman holds the lower stone of the small hand-mill of the East, while another turns the upper stone and grinds the corn. In Judges 16:21, and Lamentations 5:13, the employment appears as the crowning degradation of male captives taken in battle. It is probable that in this case, as in that of the fig-tree, the illustration may have been suggested by what was present to our Lord’s view at the time. The Mount of Olives might well have presented to His gaze, even as He spoke, the two labourers in the field, the two women at the mill.

But know this, that if the goodman of the house had known in what watch the thief would come, he would have watched, and would not have suffered his house to be broken up.
(43) But know this.—The verses from Matthew 24:42 to Matthew 24:51 have nothing corresponding to them in the reports of the discourse given by St. Mark and St. Luke, but are found almost verbatim in another discourse reported by St. Luke 12:42, et seq. Here, as elsewhere, we have to choose between the assumption of a repetition of the same words, or of a transfer of what was spoken on one occasion to another; and of the two, the former hypothesis seems the more probable. It may be noted, however, that the variations in the three reports of this discourse indicate a comparatively free treatment of it, the natural result, probably, of its having been often reproduced, wholly or in part, orally before it was committed to writing. On ordinary grounds of evidence, St. Mark’s report, assuming his connection with St. Peter, would seem likely to come nearest to the very words spoken by our Lord.

The goodman of the house.—Better, as in Matthew 20:1., householder.

In what watch.—The night-watches were four in number, of three hours each. So in Luke 12:38, we have “the second or the third watch” specified. The allusion to the “thief coming” would seem to have passed into the proverbial saying, that the day of the Lord would come “as a thief in the night,” quoted by St. Paul in 1Thessalonians 5:2.

Therefore be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh.
(44) In such an hour as ye think not.—The words are important as showing that even the signs which were to be as the budding of the fig-tree at the approach of summer were intended only to rouse the faithful to watchfulness, not to enable men to fix the times and the seasons which the Father hath set in His own power. The apparent destiny of failure which has attended on all attempts to go beyond this in the interpretation of the apocalyptic eschatology of Scripture might have been avoided had men been more careful to restrain here also their efforts after knowledge “within the limits of the knowable.”

Who then is a faithful and wise servant, whom his lord hath made ruler over his household, to give them meat in due season?
(45) Who then is a faithful . . .?—Better, Who then is the faithful and wise servant? The latter word in the Greek is that which ethical writers had used to express the moral wisdom which adapts means to ends, as contrasted with the wisdom of pure contemplation on the one hand, or technical skill on the other.

To give them meat in due season.—Better, to give them their food. In the parallel passage of Luke 12:42, the word used means “a measure or fixed portion of meal or flour.” The comparison brings before us one function of the minister of Christ. He is to supply men with the spiritual food which they need for the sustenance of their higher life. It may be the “spiritual milk” of 1Peter 2:2, Hebrews 5:12, 1Corinthians 3:2; it may be the “strong meat” or “solid food.” There is an art, as it were, of spiritual dietetics, which requires tact and discernment as well as faithfulness. The wise servant will seek to discover not only the right kind of food, but the right season for giving it. An apparent parallel presents itself in the common interpretation of “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2Timothy 2:15), but the imagery implied in that phrase is probably of an entirely different character. (See Note there.)

Blessed is that servant, whom his lord when he cometh shall find so doing.
(46) Blessed is that servant.—The words, taken in their letter, seem to refer only to those who shall thus be found at the time of the final Advent. Christian insight has, however, rightly given them a wider application. As there are “days of the Lord” in the history of churches and nations, so the Lord comes to men in the crises of their individual lives; and one such coming is that day of death which closes the trial-time of their earthly life, and brings them into the presence of the Judge.

Verily I say unto you, That he shall make him ruler over all his goods.
(47) He shall make him ruler.—The words are noteworthy as among the indications that the work of the faithful servant does not cease, either after his own removal from his earthly labour, or even after the final consummation of the kingdom. Over and above the joy of the beatific vision, or what is figured to us as the peace of Paradise, there will still be a work to be done, analogous to that which has been the man’s training here, and in it there will be scope for all the faculties and energies that have been thus disciplined and developed. (Comp. Notes on Matthew 25:21; Luke 19:17.)

But and if that evil servant shall say in his heart, My lord delayeth his coming;
(48) But and if that evil servant.—Better, but if that evil servant, the “and” being in modern English usage superfluous, and representing originally a different conjunction.

My lord delayeth his coming.—The temper described is identical with that portrayed in 2Peter 3:3-4. The words are memorable as implying the prescience, even in the immediate context of words that indicate nearness, that there would be what to men would seem delay. Those who looked on that delay as St. Peter looked on it would continue watchful, but the selfish and ungodly would be tempted by it to forget that Christ comes to men in more senses and more ways than one. The tyranny and sensuality which have at times stained the annals of the Church of Christ have had their origin in this forgetfulness, that though the final coming may be delayed, the Judge is ever near, even at the doors (James 5:9).

And shall cut him asunder, and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
(51) And shall cut him asunder.—Here also, as in the case of the faithful servant, the words have more than one fulfilment. The form of punishment (one which, in its literal sense, belongs to the inventive cruelty of Eastern kings) would seem here to have been chosen for its figurative fitness. The man had been a hypocrite, double-minded, trying to serve two masters, and his Lord, with the sharp sword of judgment, smites through the false, apparent unity of his life, and reveals its duplicity.

There shall be weeping.—As elsewhere, “the weeping and the gnashing.”

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

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