The first thing we have to do is recognize what it is Jesus is talking about. In Matthew 24 Jesus is talking about the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. The skeptics have gotten this wrong. And they have gotten it wrong because a great many Christians have gotten it wrong before them. Jesus isn’t talking about the end of the world; he’s talking about the end of Jerusalem.
How do we know this? Well, early in the chapter, the disciples came up to Jesus to point out to him the finer points of the temple. And by all accounts the temple was quite an extraordinary building, with massive stones, and decorated with gold and silver. The disciples were impressed.
But Jesus said, “You see all these [things], do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Matt. 24:2). We’ve got to this. He’s talking about the destruction of the temple. This is the proper context in which to understand what Jesus’ meaning when he says, “This generation will not pass away until all these things take place.”
After Jesus says the temple’s going to be destroyed, the disciples ask him, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age” (Matt. 24:3). When will these things be? When will the temple be destroyed? And what will be the sign of your coming. Now, here’s where some people get confused. Many people have assumed (falsely) that whenever Jesus speaks of his coming, he’s speaking about the end of human history. Not so. When he speaks this way, he is drawing upon the imagery of the OT. Very frequently, in the OT, when God is said to bring judgment upon a nation or city or people, it is spoken of in terms of God “coming” upon them. For instance, Isaiah 19:1, “Behold, the Lord is riding on a swift cloud and comes to Egypt…” Here the prophet is speaking about a historical divine judgment on the land of Egypt, one that has long since taken place. It’s already happened. And he speaks of it in terms of God “coming” to Egypt.
There are many other instances of this sort of thing throughout the Scriptures. Whenever God acts in some remarkable way, bringing either deliverance for the righteous or punishment for the wicked, he is said to “come”. For instance, when God promised, in the days of Isaiah, to deliver Israel from her enemies, he said, “The Lord of hosts will come down to fight on Mount Zion and on its hill” (Isa. 31:4). Likewise, when David wished to sing the praises of the Lord for delivering him from his enemies, he said, “My cry to him reached his ears. Then the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations also of the mountains trembled and quaked, because he was angry… He bowed the heavens and came down; thick darkness was under his feet. He rode on a cherub and flew; he came swiftly on the wings of the wind” (Ps. 18:6-7, 9-10).
Jesus is speaking in the same way in Matthew 24, and in a number of other passages in the Gospels. There is clearly a note of imminent judgment in much of Jesus’ teaching. The problem is that many people have assumed that Jesus was talking about the judgment associated with the Second Coming at the end of human history as we know it. But he wasn’t. He was talking about a judgment that would take place in the first century, in his own generation. He was talking about the Jewish war with Rome that ended with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in a.d. 70, exactly forty years after Jesus uttered the prophesy: “Not one stone will be left here standing on another which will not be torn down… Truly I tell you this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.”
It was Jesus himself who presided over the destruction of the temple. We learn in Acts 6 that the leaders of the early church preached that “Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us” (Acts 6:14).
Yes, Jesus “came” in a.d. 70 and destroyed the city and the temple. It was an act of divine judgment. In Mark Jesus told the Parable of the Tenants.
“A man planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a pit for the winepress and built a tower, and leased it to tenants and went into another country. 2 When the season came, he sent a servant to the tenants to get from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. 3 And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed. 4 Again he sent to them another servant, and they struck him on the head and treated him shamefully. 5 And he sent another, and him they killed. And so with many others: some they beat, and some they killed. 6 He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 7 But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ 8 And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard. 9 What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. (Mk. 12:1-9)This is exactly what Jesus did. He came and destroyed the tenants and gave the vineyard to others. He overthrew the city. This was the end of the age that was. It was the end of the distinctively Jewish era in the history of redemption.
It is vitally important that we understand Jesus’ meaning here. We have to read the NT in light of the impending judgment upon Jerusalem and the calling of the Gentiles into the kingdom of God. If we do, the rest of the NT will make a great deal more sense to us.
Not only this, but we will also be equipped to answer the skeptic who charges Jesus with being a false prophet, who predicted the end of the world in his own day. He wasn’t talking about the end of the world. He was talking about the end of Jerusalem.