The Return of the Son of Man: Part 2 of 3

Matthew 24:31-16


From Exegetical Commentary on Matthew, 2006, AMG Publishers

[31] There are three places where we find the phrase "shall send (from apostéllō [649] from ap [575], from; and stéllō [4724], to send; to send off from') his angels": Matthew 13:41; 24:31, and Mark 13:27. These all refer to the final separation of the righteous from the wicked who are cast into eternal fire at the consummation of the age (Matt. 13:39-42). Both here and in Mark 13:27 we read that the "elect" are gathered from "the four winds," probably the four points of the compass-"the four corners of the earth."

"His angels (from ggelos [32])" are all ministering (from leitourgiks [3010]) spirits who serve the needs of the "heirs of salvation" (Heb. 1:14). They are closely associated with Christ's incarnation and subsequent comings. An angel brought "tidings of great joy" (Luke 2:10) at the birth of Jesus our Savior. Each occasion of a sinner's repentance heralds a message of great joy to the messengers in heaven (Luke 15:10), implying that angels carry the good news of salvation in both directions. Their numbers are very great (Matt. 26:53; Heb. 12:22; Rev. 5:11).

Jesus Christ will send angels to earth at the consummation of the age (Matt. 13:39-42) to gather believers and unbelievers for judgment at the end of the Tribulation. But this coming (parousa) is subsequent to the rapture of believers (1 Thess. 4:16-17). This event will truly be the arrival (parousa) of the Lord Jesus to the earth, His coming to sit on His glorious throne (Matt. 25:31).

The final ingathering of unbelievers and believers at "the consummation of the age" is mentioned in Matthew 24:3 and in the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matt. 13:24-30). The wheat represents the seed of the Gospel that grows and bears fruit, and the tares represent the work of the devil (verses 38-39). These two, the wheat and the tares, will coexist on earth until the Lord sends His angels to make a final separation at the time of harvest. These events constitute the consummation of the age.

The gathering of believers will be worldwide. "With a great trumpet," Jesus will send out His angels to "gather together (from episungō [1996] from ep [1909], upon; and sungō [4863], to lead; to bring together, to group) His elect" (a.t.). In 2 Thessalonians 2:1, a form of the related noun episunagōgē (1997) is used in conjunction with the "coming" (parousa) of the Lord and "our gathering together unto him."

[32] "Now learn (mthete, the aorist active imperative of manthnō [3129], to learn)," Jesus continued, "a parable of the fig tree." The aorist tense means "learn once and for all!"

"Disciples" (verse 3) are mathēta (from mathētēs [3101]), learners. In the matter of prophecy, Jesus gave neither a simple chronology nor a series of exact dates regarding His return. Matthew 24 and 25 together constitute the longest reply Jesus ever gave to such a short question. Because the events that point to His return are not easily discernible, people will begin to mock the prophecies (2 Pet. 3:3-5). But Peter said "that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day" (2 Pet. 3:8).

The signs mentioned in Matthew 24:4-14 can be misconstrued because they are general in character. But the signs given in verses 15-28 are specific and discernible. Then in verse 29 the sun, the moon, and the stars will be involved, signs that immediately follow the seven-year period of the Great Tribulation. These signs point clearly to Christ's appearance on earth. In the same way, the fig tree, when "its twigs get tender and its leaves come out" (NIV), points to summer's approach.

[33] Jesus said that if we are alert when we "shall see all these things" take place, we will then "know" (from ginōskō [1097], to experientially know) that the coming of the Lord is "near" (eggs [1451]), at the very doors. The adjective eggs is relative and should be contrasted to hēkō (2240), to be here, to arrive (2 Pet. 3:10). "These things" refers to the sensational heavenly disturbances referred to in verse 29. Through these visible events, the Lord will knock at the doors of people's hearts.

[34, 35] Jesus concluded His teaching with these words, "Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled." When the sun and moon are darkened and stars fall from the skies, Jesus advised us to realize that the end is near. These events will take place in rapid succession.

The word "generation" (gene [1074]) means the average duration of a human life. In the age of the patriarchs, a generation spanned about one hundred years (cf. Gen. 15:13, 16 with Ex. 12:40, 41). However, as the ravages of sin slowly deteriorated the average span to three score and ten or seventy years (Ps. 90:10), we find the term "generation" narrowing down to approximately forty years. Thus, the generation that grieved the Lord in the desert died out in forty years (Ps. 95:10). The period from the beginning of the Babylonian Captivity (586 B.C.) to Christ, specified in Matthew 1:17 as fourteen "generations," yields five hundred and eighty-six fourteenths or about forty-two years per generation. Ancient Greeks counted three generations in each one hundred years, or about thirty-three and one-third years each.

In general, Jesus taught that the generation that "see[s] all these things" (verse 33) will not pass away without witnessing the completion of all the events prophesied. "All these things" were typically fulfilled in the forty years from A.D. 30 to 70 when Jerusalem was destroyed. Jerusalem's destruction was a sign for believers to prepare for the rapture of His church and parousa. Typical fulfillment of prophecy enhances imminence-the nearness of the Lord's return.

Imminence in these verses refers to Christ's coming in judgment after the Tribulation period and is aimed squarely at unbelievers; as Paul says, "Ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief" (1 Thess. 5:4). The parable of the fig tree helps us realize how rapidly the events predicted will take place. Lack of preparation is not excused: the evil servant who in verse 48 says, "My lord delayeth (from chronzō [5549] from chrnos [5550], a space of time; see also Matt. 25:5; Luke 12:45; Heb. 10:37) his coming," is assigned a place with the hypocrites. Christ will come as a welcome (from apekdéchomai [553]) liberator to the elect in the end times but as a plundering thief in the night (Matt. 24:43; Luke 12:39; 1 Thess. 5:2-4; 2 Pet. 3:10; Rev. 3:3; 16:15) to unbelievers.

[36] Jesus continued, "But of that day and hour knoweth (from edō [1492], the aorist of horo [3708], to see and perceive with emphasis on perception) no man (oudes [3762] from ou [3756] "not"; [1161], even; and hes [1520], one; "not even a single man"), no, not the angels of heaven, but (ei [1487], "if"; and [3361], "not"; i.e., "if not") my Father only (mnos [3441]).

Mark 13:32 adds a significant detail: "But of that day or hour (ē [2228], or hōras [5610], exact hour) no man knows, nor (oudé [3761]) the angels that are in heaven, neither (oudē) the Son, but the Father" (a.t. [MJ]). In the fourth century A.D., Arians used Mark's text to try to disprove Christ's deity by arguing His ignorance regarding the timing of His return. The argument is quite simple: if the Son of God does not know a particular proposition-the time of His return- He cannot be omniscient by definition, that is, knowing all propositions. The verse is difficult to exegete. Without exhausting all the logical possibilities, Jesus no doubt clearly taught that "the Father only" knows the time of His return, ei mē best interpreted as in all the English versions either as "but" or "except."

As God, Jesus Christ is omniscient and knows all things innately. The Father does not reveal things to the Son of God as He would to an angel or a human. Since the Son of God is omniscient by definition, revelation to Him is meaningless. Innate omniscience cannot "receive" revelation.

If we take the unqualified "Son" here as the Son of man-not the Son of God-then we can offer the rational interpretation that the triune God, the Father, the Word, and Holy Spirit, did not reveal to the human nature of Christ (the "Son of man" who "increased in wisdom" [Luke 2:52]) the time of His return of which the Lgos or Infinite Wisdom had no need of revelation. In His humanity, He may have laid aside this particular detail as He did His glory.

This is logically scriptural, and it was the mainstay argument of the most famous Greek Trinitarian in Christian history, Athanasius. It was used successfully against the Arians in the fourth century, the Nestorians in the fifth, and against every cult that has denied the Trinity since.

The fact that Jesus said "Son" in the third person implied that the Word (Lgos; see John 1:1, 14), the divine Person, was speaking. In other words, the Lgos did not say, "I do not know" but rather, "neither the Son (i.e., Son of man, the third person; see Mark 13:32)." Though the end product is complex, no contradiction results from the Word incarnating in flesh. The Chalcedonian Christology accurately summarized this complexity: Jesus Christ is true God and true man, without mixture and without confusion.

When Jesus spoke of the day and hour (both singular), we should recall Peter's words that "one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day" (2 Pet. 3:8). He did not say one day with the Lord is one thousand of our years. He used "as" (hōs [5613]) to guard his readers from creating useless equations. The simile is anthropomorphic. Because God is timeless and immutable, He does not experience time at all. For example, He doesn't wait for things to happen, watch a clock, or get bored and impatient.

Some events within the Day of the Lord, like the transformation of believers' bodies to conform to Christ's glorified body, will take place in an "instant" (from tomos [823] from a [1]; and tomē [n.f.], cut, from témnō [n.f.], to cut, divide; indivisible time'), the "twinkling (rhipē [4493]; from rhptō [4496], to cast, throw) of an eye," that is, the time it takes to change the direction of a glance (1 Cor. 15:52). By definition as divisionless, an instant is timeless since time is always divisible.

Spiros Zodhiates (1922-2009) served as president of AMG International for over 40 years, was the founding editor of Pulpit Helps Magazine (Disciple's predecessor), and authored dozens of exegetical books.

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