FOUR MONUMENTAL PROPHETIC EVENTS
In Matthew 24 Jesus explained “the signs” of both “the end of the age” and of His “return;” this came in response to His previous statement to the disciples that the Temple would be destroyed. To the Jew, the desolation of the Temple was synonymous with “the end of the age” and the coming of the Messiah (an hour of history referred to in the Hebrew Scripture as “the Day of the Lord”).
Jesus explained the precipitous trends and events that would signal the nearness of His return in 24:4-14. And then in 24:15-31 he describes a timeframe of horrendous upheaval that He called “a time of tribulation such has never been nor ever shall be.” He explained how this “time of tribulation” would commence (24:15-16) and how it would conclude (24:29-31). In this article I want to show how important the information contained in 24:29-31 is and why you should understand it – especially in light of the various perspectives on Biblical prophecy.
29 “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 30 Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. 31 And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. (Matthew 24:29-31)
Jesus describes four events that we need to understand:
- The tribulation of those days – v. 29a
- Cosmic disturbance – v. 29b
- Jesus comes on the clouds in power and great glory visible by all the earth – v. 30
- Angels gather the elect with a loud trumpet – v. 31
These four events bring this present age to a close. They unfold chronologically (which decisively destroys the theory of a pre-tribulational rapture). They are intended to be understood as literally as 24:15-28. And they occur “after the tribulation.” But not just any tribulation; the tribulation of “those days.” The phrase “those days” is critical. Jesus is connecting these great climactic events in 24:29-31 with the “time of great tribulation” explained in 25:15-28. These events explained in 24:15-31 are inextricably linked to one another in their appointed hour of fulfillment. They constitute “the end of the age.” They comprise what the prophets referred to as “the Day of the Lord” and what the apostles would call “the Day of God.” This is the very climax and consummation of history before the inauguration of the next age; the time of which Peter called “the restoration of all things” in Acts 3:21.
WHY IS MATTHEW 24:29-31 IMPORTANT?
Many believe that Jesus’ sermon in Matthew 24 was intended to describe the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD (they’re called “Preterists”). They say the “birth pains” of 24:4-14 (including the false prophets, earthquakes and global Gospel proclamation) and the “abomination of desolation” that ignites the “time of great tribulation” of 24:15-28 were fulfilled in the generation of the apostles. They argue that Jesus’ description of His triumphal coming on the clouds was merely metaphorical. To say it succinctly: These are metaphors for events fulfilled in the first century AD. 
For example, world renowned New Testament scholar N.T. Wright argues that:
“When Jewish writers spoke of the sun and moon being darkened; when they spoke of angels gathering people from the four winds of heaven; when, in particular, they spoke of a Son of Man who would come on the clouds of heaven – in each of these cases they were using language in this metaphorical way. It is flagrantly absurd to think that Jesus, in saying that sort of thing, envisaged himself of anyone else literally flying around in mid-air on an actual cloud” (Who Was Jesus? pg. 55).
“…the ‘coming of the son of man’ does not refer to the [second coming] in the modern scholarly, and popular, sense of a human figure travelling downwards towards the earth on actual clouds…The ‘coming of the son of man’ is thus good first-century metaphorical language….” (Jesus and the Victory of God; pg. 359-60).
Theologian Sam Storms writes:
“Although this entire present age intervening between the first and second comings of Christ is one of tribulation, trial and distress, the so-called Great Tribulation mentioned in [Matthew 24] v. 21 (and described in vv. 15-28; and perhaps also in vv. 29-31) has already come and gone. It is to be identified with the siege on Jerusalem during the years 66-70 a.d., which culminated in the destruction of the city and its Temple by the armies of Rome (the latter being the “abomination of desolation” referred to in v. 15). Thus “The Great Tribulation” of Mt. 24:21 (called “days of vengeance” in Lk. 21:22 and “days of affliction” in Mk. 13:19) is not a future event but an established fact of past history.” (from, Matthew 24 and the Olivet Discourse Part 1)
“This “coming” [described in Matthew 24:29-31] is not a visible, physical appearance by which Jesus returns to earth (although that will most assuredly occur at the end of history). Rather, they [Israel] will “see” him in the sense that they will “understand”, i.e., spiritually perceive that he is the vindicated and enthroned King.” (from, Matthew 24 and the Olivet Discourse Part 3)
J.S. Russell, in his monumental book “Parousia” from which this perspective spawned wrote:
“We are compelled, therefore, by all these considerations, and chiefly by regard for the authority of Him whose word cannot be broken, to conclude that the Parousia, or second coming of Christ, with its connected and concomitant events, did take place, according to the Saviour’s own prediction, at the period when Jerusalem was destroyed, and before the passing away of ‘that generation’” (The Parousia, [2nd. ed. 1887], 549).
Theologian Kenneth Gentry writes:
“This [passages in Matthew 24:29-31] actually refers to Jesus’ ascension [not his second advent]. In the destruction of the temple, the rejected Christ is vindicated as the ascended Lord and shown to possess great power and glory.”
Brian MacLaren states that:
“…[viewing Matthew 24 as a timeframe in the future is an] eschatology of abandonment….[that] has disastrous social consequences….on issues like…ecology, poverty, sexuality, etc.” (from, Preterist Planet interview)
The problems with this perspective abound. Let me point out two:
First, those that argue Jesus was speaking metaphorically in 24:29-31 believe 24:4-14 had a literal fulfillment. And they have no problem with this glaring inconsistency. But they should. To suggest Jesus switched hermeneutical gears mid-sermon is ludicrous. Jesus was doing what the prophets before Him did: prophesying about an eschatological military invasion of Jerusalem whereby all nations would level a bloody assault on the “center of the earth” (Ez. 38:8-12) and suffer the fierce judgment of God for doing so (Joel 3:2-21) as the whole cosmic order convulses (Joel 2:29-31; Zech. 14). Zechariah chapters 12-14 is the clearest example of this prophetic juxtaposition of end-time military invasion and cosmic disturbance. Zechariah uses the same straight forward language as Jesus in Matthew 24 to describe a literal military invasion of Jerusalem and then, just like Jesus in Matthew 24, seamlessly moves to describe heavenly shaking and the cosmic trauma. Joel chapter 2:28-3:21 we find the same thing: “All nations” engaging in a vicious battle for “Jerusalem” provoking God to “enter into judgment” with those nations as “the sun” ceases “to give light” and as “blood, fire and pillars of smoke” cover the face of the earth signaling “the Day of the Lord.” The military invasion and the cosmic disturbance of Zechariah, Joel and Matthew 24 must be subjected to the same measurement of interpretation. Jesus no more intended us to receive 24:29-31 as a metaphor than He did 24:4-14.
Second, those that suggest Matthew 24 had its fulfillment in the generation of the disciples must of necessity deny the future eschatological nature of “the time of tribulation.” And to do this is to butcher the Scriptural teaching on the Day of the Lord. Let me explain. Matthew 24:21 is a direct quotation of Daniel’s prophecy in Daniel 12:1-2. Let’s compare the two:
“At that time…there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. 2 And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. (Daniel 12:1-2)
For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. (Matthew 24:21)
If Matthew 24:21 is the same event described in Daniel 12:1-2, those who insist on a historical fulfillment of Matthew 24 must overcome a number of insurmountable exegetical odds to maintain legitimacy. Daniel was told that this “time of trouble/tribulation” would conclude with two monumentally significant events: the deliverance of His Jewish brethren (12:1) and the resurrection of the dead (12:2). In addition to these two paramount events, Daniel was told the final tribulation of this age would occur at “the time of the end” (Daniel 11:35, 40; 12:6-12) and that it would be preceded by “the abomination of desolation” (Daniel 11:30, 36) and a gruesome battle for Jerusalem led by a cruel and sinister man (Daniel 11:21-46) who “divides up the land” (Daniel 11:39). Put it together and compare what Daniel is saying and Jesus is echoing:
- There will be a time of unequal trouble (Dan. 12:1; Mt. 24:21)
- It will end in the resurrection of the righteous (Dan. 12:2; Mt. 24:31)
- The Jewish people will be delivered at the end of it (Dan. 12:1; Mt. 24:30 with Rev. 1:7 and Zech 12:10; Mt. 25:31-46)
- It will be preceded by the “abomination of desolation” (Dan. 11:30, 36; Mt. 24:15)
- It will include a gruesome military campaign on Jewish soil (Dan. 11:29-45 with Dan. 9:26-27; Mt. 24:15-22)
- The Jewish people in the land of Israel will be brutally assaulted and “shattered” (Dan. 12:7; 11:30-35; Mt. 24:16-22)
If one wishes to argue that Jesus’ prophecy of the abomination of desolation, His visible coming on the clouds and the gathering of the elect in the resurrection is metaphorical and historically fulfilled he must also impose the same regulations on Daniel 11:21-12:11. Unfortunately, my library of commentaries is evidence that many are willing to do so. And its a great tragedy.
Matthew 24:29-31 tells us of four chronological events that occur “after the tribulation of those days.” And the “tribulation of those days” in Matthew 24 are identical to the “time of trouble” of “the end days” in Daniel 11:21-12:11. This time of trouble and tribulation, according to both accounts, includes the raising of the righteous at Christ’s post-tribulational return while Daniel’s people (the Jews) are also simultaneously “delivered” after being “completely shattered.”
Therefore any past time of tribulation (including that associated with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD) that did not end in the simultaneous events of the return of Jesus, literal cosmic disturbance, the resurrection of the righteous and the deliverance of Daniel’s people cannot be “the time of great tribulation” described in Daniel 12:1 and Matthew 24:21 (or Jeremiah 30:5-7 and Revelation 7:14 for that matter; where the same phrase is again found).
 RC Sproul, Brian MacLaren, R. T. France, Rob Bell, N. T. Wright, Peter Walker, Douglas Wilson, David Chilton, Kenneth Gentry, Gary DeMar and Sam Storms are a number of preachers who hold this view.