Craig S. Keener
As Jesus laments Jerusalem’s impending judgment, He connects the destruction of the “house”—the temple—with His second coming: “See, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’ ” (Matt 23:38–39). Earlier, in Matthew 23:36, Jesus warns that the judgment will come on “this generation.” His prophecy was correct: Although some of the retaining wall survived, the temple proper was completely destroyed in 70 AD. Does Jesus’ connection of these events indicate that His second coming has come and gone already?
Come and Gone
We could conclude that Jesus came back figuratively in Jerusalem’s destruction, but later verses in this context suggest that Jesus intended a literal coming.
Jesus warns His disciples to discredit prophets claiming that He was on earth; rather, His coming would be like lightning shining from east to west (24:26–27). Borrowing the language of Daniel, Jesus promises to come “on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (24:30). He notes that the tribes of earth would mourn at His coming—not just Jerusalem, but all the earth (24:30). His visible coming will affect the entire earth.
Now and Later
So, if Jesus ties these events together, what was He intending the disciples to take away from His message?
When Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple in 24:1–2, His disciples ask two questions: “When will these things (i.e. the destruction of the temple) be?” and “What will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” (24:3).
Jesus answers both questions, but He doesn’t distinguish which one He is answering. He states that “these things” would be fulfilled within a generation (24:34). But He specifies that no one could know the hour of His coming—“not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (24:36).
Signs and Non-Signs
Jesus answers the question about the sign of His coming only after He lists many non-signs. In His day, many of His contemporaries claimed that earthquakes and wars were signs of the end. Jesus warns that people will see these events long before the end—but the end is “not yet” (24:6–8).
The only explicit sign of His coming would follow a period of tribulation, when His sign would appear in the sky: At His coming He will gather His followers with the sound of a trumpet (24:29–31).
Finally, Jesus gives one prerequisite for the end that was not fulfilled within His generation: When the good news of the kingdom has been proclaimed among all peoples, then the end will come (24:14). If we live in anticipation of Jesus’ return, there’s a part we can play.
Biblical references are from the English Standard Version (ESV).