With his disciples, Jesus left Jerusalem, crossed the Kidron Valley, and ascended the western slope of the Mount of Olives. At a location on the eminence from which the temple could be seen, Jesus seated himself. (Mark 13:3) Being well over 100 feet higher than the temple site, the Mount of Olives provided a panoramic view of the area. (See http://bibleplaces.com/mtolives.htm for pictures of and comments about the Mount of Olives.)
Jesus’ words about the future destruction of the temple prompted wonderment among the disciples. Peter, James, John, and Andrew approached him privately to ask when this would occur. Peter’s being mentioned first in Mark 13:3 may indicate that he, as on other occasions, took the initiative to question Jesus.
Matthew 24:3, Mark 13:4, and Luke 21:7 represent the disciples as wanting to know, “When will these things be?” For the disciples, the temple would have been the most important building in existence. As the center of worship for Jews everywhere, it was inseparably linked to their identity as a nation or people. (See http://holylandphotos.org for a model of the temple [type “second temple model” in the search box]. Also, for additional information, see http://bibleplaces.com/templemount.htm [where you will find pictures of the Temple Mount and accompanying comments].)
Understandably, the disciples would have wondered whether an event as significant as the future destruction of the temple might not be preceded by a specific sign. This is, in fact, the way the question is continued in Mark 13:4 (“and what [will be] the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?”) and Luke 21:7 (“and what [will be] the sign when these things are about to happen?”).
In Matthew 24:3, the continuation of the question is more directly linked to Jesus (“and what [will be] the sign of your [royal] presence [parousía] and of the termination of the age?”) In the basic sense, the wording of the question does not significantly differ from that in Mark 13:4 and Luke 21:7. To the disciples, the destruction of the temple and the end of the age would have been parallel expressions. Because of the temple’s importance in their life as Jews, its destruction would have been considered the end of an age or a world as they knew it. Moreover, they expected Jesus, the one whom they had acknowledged as their Lord and King, to restore the kingdom to Israel. (Acts 1:6) Therefore, in view of their expectations, it would not have been unusual for them to think in terms of a sign preceding Jesus’ royal presence and the end of the age.
In his response, Jesus directed attention away from the “when” of the question. Instead, he primarily emphasized matters that should be of concern to his disciples in the future. His answer, though given to Peter, James, John, and Andrew, applied to all of his disciples who would be affected by the events he was then about to relate.
Jesus warned them not to be deceived. (Matthew 24:4; Mark 13:5) Many would come in his name or lead others to believe that they were the longed-for Messiah who would liberate them from the Roman yoke. According to Matthew 24:5, they would say “I am the Christ [the Messiah].” In Mark 13:6 and Luke 21:8, the abbreviated version of their words is, “I am,” meaning “I am he” or “I am the one.” As a consequence, many would be deceived. The deceivers would foster false hopes about imminent deliverance from foreign oppression, saying, “The time is near.” Jesus admonished his disciples to give no heed to their words, “Do not go after them.” (Luke 21:8)
The first-century Jewish historian Josephus wrote that many men deluded the people before the destruction of Jerusalem and during the time the city was under siege. (War, VI, v, 3) While Felix was procurator of Judea, numerous deceivers acquired a following. These men “deceived and deluded the people under pretense of divine inspiration” but had revolution as their aim. They persuaded “the multitude to act like madmen, and went before them into the wilderness, as pretending that God would there show them the signals of liberty.” Perceiving the start of a revolt, Felix sent an armed force against them, and many of the deluded people were slaughtered. (War, II, xiii, 4)
A certain Egyptian came to be viewed as a prophet. This man gained a considerable following and later led thousands of men from the wilderness to the Mount of Olives. From there, he purposed to force his way into Jerusalem, overpower the Roman garrison, and, with the aid of those with him, establish himself as ruler over the people. His attempt failed, for Felix met him with his Roman soldiers. The deceiver and a few others escaped, but many of those who followed him were killed or captured. (War, II, xiii, 5)
Jesus told the disciples that they would hear about “wars and rumors of wars” (“wars and uprisings” or revolts [Luke 21:9]), but that they should not become alarmed or fearful. This probably means that they were not to give in to the troubling uneasiness or the kind of terror people experience when they, without any option for escape, anticipate a horrific outcome or end. Distressing developments were certain to come, but the end about which the disciples had asked would be still future. As Jesus said, “The end is not yet” or would not follow “immediately.” The wars and insurrections would not serve as a “sign” for ascertaining the imminent destruction of the temple or for determining that Jesus’ parousía or royal presence was at hand. One nation would rise up against another nation, and one kingdom against another kingdom. Earthquakes would occur in one place after another. There would be famines and plagues. People would see fear-inspiring portents and “great signs.” (Matthew 24:6, 7; Mark 13:7, 8; Luke 21:9-11; see the Notes section for what ancient histories indicate regarding developments before Jerusalem’s destruction.)
The wars, famines, earthquakes, and pestilences would be only the start of distress. “All these things,” said Jesus, “are the beginning of birth pangs [the plural of odín].” (Matthew 24:8; Mark 13:8) The Greek term odín can designate “birth pain” or any intense pain, woe, or distress (as experienced when giving birth). Ancient Jewish sources provide a basis for concluding that the expression “woe of the Messiah” was used in the first century and was understood to mean the distress immediately preceding the Messianic age. Therefore, the words “the beginning of birth pangs,” woes, or distress appear to have expressed the opposite of the prevailing view. Greater suffering, not the Messianic age, lay ahead.
During the turbulent time marked by wars, uprisings, food shortages, earthquakes, and pestilences, the disciples would face intense hostility from unbelievers. Jesus told them to watch out for themselves, suggesting that they needed to be on guard to avoid needlessly placing themselves in a position of danger. (Mark 13:9) He himself had set the example by taking steps to get away from those who were determined to harm him. (John 8:59; 11:53, 54; John 12:36)
The disciples would be arrested and imprisoned, handed over to Jewish councils for trial, beaten in the synagogues, tortured, and brought before governors and kings because of being Jesus’ disciples. This would serve as a testimony to those before whom they made their defense and to all who heard them speak. (Matthew 24:9; Mark 13:9; Luke 21:12, 13)
When they were being taken before authorities, they were not to give in to anxiety, struggling to formulate their defense in advance and worrying about what they might say. Jesus assured them that they would be “given” what they were to speak, for the holy spirit would be guiding their defense. (Mark 13:11; Luke 21:14) According to Luke 21:15, Jesus told them, “I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which all who oppose you will be unable to withstand or contradict.” As they would be receiving the holy spirit through him, Jesus would be the one who would grant them the capacity and wisdom to make their defense. (Acts 2:33)
Within families serious divisions would arise, with some proving themselves to be loyal disciples of God’s Son, whereas others would persist in unbelief and become openly hateful. As a result, a brother would hand over his brother to be put to death, and a father his children. Children would betray their own parents and have them killed. Friends and other relatives would turn against Jesus’ disciples, and betray them. (Mark 13:12; Luke 21:16)
Faced with bitter persecution, many professing disciples would “stumble,” denying their faith in Jesus and becoming traitors and hateful enemies of those who would remain loyal to him. In the community of believers, false prophets would arise and mislead many. On account of increasing lawlessness, fear would replace love. For many, the love for God and for others would “cool off” or be squelched. The distressing circumstances would call for endurance, and those who remained loyal to Christ would be saved. (Matthew 24:10-13; Mark 13:13)
Although remaining true to him could cost them their lives, Jesus assured his disciples that their eternal life would be secure. Not a “hair from [their] head” would perish; not even a fragment of their real identity as persons dearly loved by God would be lost. Through faithful endurance, they would gain their “souls,” which would mean preserving the real life of an enduring relationship with Jesus and his Father. (Luke 21:18, 19)
The book of Acts and the letters Paul and others wrote to fellow believers preserve the record of what the apostles and other disciples faced in the time after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Persecution initially came from unbelieving Jews. Then, just as Jesus said, his disciples did come to be hated by all nations because of his name or on account of being identified as attached to him as disciples. (Matthew 24:9; Mark 13:13; Luke 21:17)
An example of this hatred and associated suffering is preserved in the Annals ( XV, 44) of the Roman historian Tacitus (c. 55 to c. 117 CE): “Nero fastened the guilt [for the burning of Rome] and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.
“Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed.” (Translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb; edited by Moses Hadas)
Besides the hatred of unbelievers, Christ’s disciples had to contend with false brothers, teachers of error, and false prophets. (2 Corinthians 11:24-27; 2 Timothy 1:15; 2:16-18; 3:8-13; 4:14, 15) The treachery of former friends would have been especially painful and disheartening. Nevertheless, despite the hardships, the glad tidings about Jesus and how to become part of the realm where he is king by his Father’s appointment continued to be proclaimed. As Jesus said, this message would be declared in the whole world and then the end would come. (Matthew 24:14; Mark 13:10) Prior to the end that culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem and the magnificent temple, the glad tidings about God’s kingdom had spread throughout the then-known world, reaching people throughout the Roman Empire. (Compare Colossians 1:23.)
The time for a speedy flight out of Jerusalem to the mountains to escape the disaster that would befall the city would be when the “abomination of desolation” stood in the place where it should not be. It was the prophet Daniel (9:27; 11:31; 12:11, LXX) who referred to this abomination. The parenthetical expression (“let the reader understand”) likely refers to the reader of the book of Daniel, where the “abomination of desolation” is mentioned. (Matthew 24:15; Mark 13:14 [but this passage in Mark does not include the reference to the prophet Daniel])
In Luke 21:20, there is no mention of the “abomination of desolation,” but the time for flight is identified as being when Jerusalem is surrounded by armies. If these armies are the “abomination,” this would fit a development the Jewish historian Josephus related. At the time Cestius Gallus with his entire Roman army came against Jerusalem, he led a force of soldiers with archers to begin an assault on the north side of the temple. For a time, the Jews succeeded in resisting the attack, but the many missiles from the archers finally caused them to give way. Protected by their shields, the Roman soldiers began to undermine the wall and prepared to set the gate of the temple on fire. (War, II, xix, 5) As the Roman soldiers were then on ground the Jews considered to be holy and close to the most sacred precincts with their idolatrous ensigns, one could conclude that they were the “abomination of desolation” in a position where they should not have been standing.
Unexpectedly, Cestius Gallus did not continue with the siege. Although he had experienced no reverses, he recalled his troops and withdrew from the city. His retreat emboldened the Jews who opposed Rome, and they left the city to pursue his army, succeeding in slaying about 5,300 of the infantry and about 380 [480, according to another extant text of Josephus] of the cavalry. The Jews lost only a few of their number. (War, II, xix, 6-9)
After this disastrous retreat of the Romans, many of the distinguished Jews fled from Jerusalem as from a ship about to sink. (War, II, xx, 1) In his Ecclesiastical History (III, v, 3), Eusebius relates that those who believed in Christ left Jerusalem before the war began and settled in Pella. He did not, however, say that they did so in obedience to Jesus’ words but attributed their departure to “an oracle given by revelation to acceptable persons,” ordering them to leave the city. (Translated by G. A. Williamson)
In the book of Daniel (9:27; 11:31; 12:11, LXX), the expression “abomination of desolation” or “desolations” is linked directly to a defilement of the temple and the discontinuance of the sacrifices. Moreover, 1 Maccabees 1:54 (LXX) appears to refer to a pagan altar erected over the altar of burnt offering at the direction of Antiochus Epiphanes as the “abomination of desolation.”
If the “abomination of desolation” specifically involves the temple, the time when the “armies” surrounded Jerusalem (Luke 21:20) would relate to another development in the war with Rome. The “abomination of desolation” may then apply to a defilement of the temple, which occurrence would have signaled the last opportunity for escape from Jerusalem. This could have been when the Zealots seized control of the temple precincts and made it the base of operations for violent actions. According to Josephus, the high priest Ananus, when appealing to the populace to rise up against the Zealots, said that it would have been better for him to have died than to see “the house of God full of so many abominations, or these sacred places that ought not to be trodden upon at random, filled with the feet of these blood-shedding villains.” (War, IV, iii, 10)
The effort to dislodge the Zealots failed. With the aid secretly obtained from a force of about 20,000 Idumeans, the Zealots secured their position, and Ananus and his supporters were killed in the ensuing slaughter. (War, IV, iii, 11-14; iv, 1-7; v, 1, 2) Thereafter the situation continued to deteriorate in Jerusalem, and escape became extremely difficult. The Zealots guarded every passage out of the city, killing those whom they caught fleeing. Only the wealthy were able to purchase the opportunity for flight, whereas the poor were slain. (War, IV, vi, 3)
Regardless with what specific development the “abomination of desolation” may be identified, history confirms that postponement of flight after Cestius Gallus withdrew would have meant exposure to graver dangers and the possibility of not being able to get out of the city. This agrees with the kind of urgency that Jesus’ words conveyed. Those in Judea were to flee to the mountains, not seeking security from the Roman armies within the walls of Jerusalem. Persons inside the city were to make their speedy departure, and those outside the city were not to enter it. (Luke 21:21) To emphasize the importance of not delaying, Jesus said, “The one on the roof should not go down to take things out of his house, and the one in the field should not go back to get his garment.” (Matthew 24:16-18; Mark 13:14-16)
In warm climates, the flat roofs of houses were often places were people found a more comfortable location on hot days. Access to the roof was either by means of a ladder or outside stairs. Even when people left the housetop, they did not need to enter the home. Therefore, the point of not going into the house to get things may indicate that flight should be undertaken without delay. It is also possible that the quick escape is like that of a person who jumped from the flat roof of one house to that of another and thus made his way out of the city. The same portrayal of urgency is conveyed with the person finding himself working in the field. Time was not to be lost in going back to the house to get a garment.
It would then be a time for executing judgment (literally, “days of vengeance”). “All the things written” would be fulfilled. (Luke 21:22) This likely relates to the things previously written in the Scriptures, including Daniel 9:26 regarding the destruction of the city and the sanctuary. In his Antiquities (X, xi, 7), Josephus specifically commented about this, saying, “Daniel also wrote concerning the Roman government, and that our country should be made desolate by them.”
Speedy escape would be especially difficult for pregnant women or those nursing an infant that had to be carried. With travel restrictions imposed on the Sabbath and the extra hazards of flight in winter, the disciples would have every reason to pray that they not then have to make their escape. (Matthew 24:19, 20; Mark 13:17, 18; Luke 21:23)
The suffering to befall Jerusalem would be greater than had taken place “from the beginning of the world” or “creation” until that time and would not happen again. (Matthew 24:21; Mark 13:19) It would be a time when great distress would come upon the “land” (Judea) and the wrath of the besieging army would be directed against the people. Those not perishing “by the edge of the sword” would be taken away as captives and scattered among the nations. Jerusalem would be “trampled on” by the non-Jewish nations until the times of these nations would be “fulfilled” or until they would face their day of reckoning. (Luke 21:22-24)
Josephus, a former resident of Jerusalem who witnessed the suffering of the inhabitants while with the Roman army, confirmed the fulfillment of the prophetic words. “Our city Jerusalem had arrived at a higher degree of felicity than any other city under the Roman government, and yet at last fell into the sorest of calamities again. Accordingly it appears to me, that the misfortunes of all men, from the beginning of the world, if they be compared to these of the Jews, are not so considerable as they were.” (War, Preface, 4)
Jesus had said that, unless the time of the distress upon Jerusalem would be cut short, no flesh would be saved. (Matthew 24:22; Mark 13:20) Once the Romans entered the city, they indiscriminately slew anyone whom they encountered and set fire to the houses in which they knew people had taken refuge. If the siege had been protracted, the rage of the Roman military could have intensified to the point where they would have been determined to kill every Jew in the Roman Empire. Indicative of this are the words of Josephus, “As soon as the army had no more people to slay or to plunder, because there remained none to be objects of their fury (for they would not have spared any, had there remained any other such work to be done), [Titus] gave orders that they should now demolish the entire city and temple.” (War, VII, i, 1)
For the sake of the “chosen,” the believing remnant of the nation, those horrifying days of suffering were cut short, the siege of Jerusalem being ended within a comparatively brief time. (Matthew 24:22; Mark 13:20) Therefore, through God’s providential care of his own, the Jews as a people survived in other parts of the Roman Empire.
During the war itself and before the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, many inside the city looked for divine deliverance. Jesus, though, had made it clear that no Messiah would stop the impending calamity. Any claim about the Messiah or Christ (according to the reading of the Greek text) being at one location or another should not be believed. No credence should be given any report about his being in the wilderness and ready to come with a liberating army or about his hiding in an inner room, planning for a surprise attack against the enemy. (Matthew 24:23-26; Mark 13:21-23)
The return of Christ, the true Messiah, would not be an event about which only a few would know and through whom the news would originally spread. The return of Christ, the royal presence of the “Son of Man,” would prove to be as observable as lightning illuminating the sky from the east to the west. It would be as noticeable as the circling of vultures in the sky, indicating that a carcass is lying on the ground. Still, as Jesus warned there would be false messiahs and false prophets who, with signs and wonders, would lead many astray and, if possible, “even the chosen” or those who believe in him. Therefore, having been forewarned, the disciples needed to remain alert, not allowing themselves to be deluded. (Matthew 24:24-28; Mark 13:22, 23; see the Notes section on Matthew 24:28 about the Greek term aetós.)
Josephus confirms that many deceivers and false prophets did appear in Jerusalem. One of them persuaded many to go to the temple and there wait for God to deliver them. A crowd of about 6,000, including women and children, then took refuge on a portico of the outer court. In their rage, the Roman soldiers set the portico on fire from below, and the entire multitude perished. (War, VI, v, 2, 3)
“Immediately after the distress of those days,” Jesus continued, “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not shed its light, and the stars will fall from heaven [probably wording based on meteor showers], and the powers of the heavens will be shaken [celestial phenomena characterized by a markedly different appearance of the sky].” (Matthew 24:29; Mark 13:24, 25)
Parallel expressions are found in the words of the prophets. In the proclamation against Babylon, the fall of that world power is portrayed as YHWH’s coming to desolate the “earth” or land. Next the prophecy refers to the darkening of stars, sun, and moon, and YHWH is represented as making the heavens tremble and as shaking the earth or land out of its place. (Isaiah 13:1, 9, 10, 13) Similarly, in the lamentation over Egypt’s Pharaoh, Ezekiel 32:8 (NRSV) represents YHWH as saying, “When I blot you out, I will cover the heavens, and make their stars dark; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give its light. All the shining lights of the heavens I will darken above you, and put darkness on your land.” As to the effect this would have on other peoples and nations, Ezekiel 32:9 (NRSV) continues, “I will trouble the hearts of many peoples, as I carry you captive among the nations, into countries you have not known.” In the book of Joel (3:14, 15), the “day of YHWH” for executing judgment on the nations is likewise associated with the darkening of the sun, moon, and stars. (See also Jeremiah 4:23, 24; Joel 2:10, 30, 31.)
In these prophecies, the world or realm in which the people of a particular nation or nations carried on their activity is portrayed as a unit consisting of land and the celestial dome. When calamity strikes, the changed condition of the people is represented as a darkening of the heavens, with no light to mitigate the gloom of the day or the night, and the land is depicted as becoming unstable as when shaken by an earthquake. In its desolated state, the earth or land is spoken of as mourning, and the heavens above it are portrayed as growing black. (Jeremiah 4:23-28) The parallel language found in the writings of the prophets provides a basis for understanding the references (in Matthew 24:29, Mark 13:24, 25; Luke 21:25, 26) to the darkening of the sun and the moon, the falling of the stars, the shaking of the earth and the powers of the heavens, and the raging of the sea to be figurative.
If the term “immediately” (euthéos) in Matthew 24:29 has the literal sense, this would mean that the darkening of the heavens and the other troubling developments are descriptive of the gloom that set in immediately after the suffering or tribulation associated with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. For the some 97,000 survivors of that horrific end, there was nothing to brighten either their days or their nights. The tallest and most handsome of the young men were reserved to be exhibited as humiliated captives in the triumphal march. Many of those above the age of 17 were sent to work as slaves in the mines of Egypt. Others were sent to the various provinces of the Roman Empire to put on a spectacle in the arenas and there to perish by the sword or to be killed and devoured by beasts. Those under the age of 17 were sold into slavery. (War, VI, ix, 2, 3)
In the case of Jews living in other parts of the Roman Empire, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple would have meant the end of their world. The triumphal Arch of Titus in Rome and the Western or Wailing Wall of Jerusalem remain as ancient reminders of a development comparable to the darkening of the sun, moon, and stars, and an upheaval in the celestial dome (with what appear to be stars dropping from the sky) and a violent shaking of the land.
In Luke’s account, the falling of the stars and the darkening of the sun and moon are referred to as “signs” in the sun, moon, and stars. Regarding the earth, the narration of Jesus’ words continues, “Upon the earth [there will be] panic among nations, [being] in confusion from the roar and raging of the sea. Men will faint from fear and foreboding of the things coming upon [their] habitation, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” (Luke 21:25, 26) If applying to first-century developments, this description could relate to the effect the utter destruction of a prominent city would have on the nations. (See the Notes section for additional comments on Matthew 24:29; Mark 13:24, and Luke 21:25.) Among people generally, any hint of revolt would likely have given rise to dread and alarm. Josephus wrote that his description of the disciplined and formidable Roman army had as one of its objectives to deter others from revolting as had the Jews. (War, III, v, 8)
People would have reacted much like those on a ship during a storm, tossed about by the wind and the waves. With fear and foreboding, they would envision what would lie ahead for them in case of revolt or insurrection, making them faint or causing them to be overwhelmed with a sense of weakness and helplessness. Their world would have taken on an appearance of darkness, as if the “powers of the heavens” were being shaken, eclipsing all illumination during the day and the night.
While darkness or a time of gloom marked by serious troubles would exist, the sign of the Son of Man would appear. The nature of this sign is not disclosed, but reasonably it would be something that would leave no doubt about his arrival. He would be seen “coming on the clouds [in clouds (Mark 13:26); in a cloud (Luke 21:27)] with power and great glory.” Upon the appearance of the “sign” followed by the arrival of the Son of Man (the glorified Jesus Christ), unbelievers would be overwhelmed with fear. In expression of their grief, they would beat their breasts. Right from the start of the developments Jesus described, believers, however, could stand confidently, lifting their heads, knowing that their deliverance from distress was near. (Matthew 24:30; Mark 13:26; Luke 21:27, 28)
As Christ’s chosen or elect, they would have his favorable attention. At a given signal, comparable to a loud trumpet sound, the Son of God would have his angels gather them from every part of the earth. (Matthew 24:31; Mark 13:27) The apparent reason for the gathering the angels would undertake, as indicated elsewhere in the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:51, 52; 1 Thessalonians 4:16, 17), would be to unite the chosen with Jesus so that they could be forever with him.
The Son of God next called attention to the fig tree (and all the other trees [Luke 21:29]) as teaching a parable or likeness. One would know that summer was near when the twigs of the tree became soft and began to sprout leaves. Likewise, when all the things Jesus mentioned would be taking place, “it,” “he” or “the kingdom of God” would be near, “at the doors.” (Matthew 24:32, 33; Mark 13:28, 29; Luke 21:29-31)
In the Greek text of Matthew 24:33 and Mark 13:29, the verb estín can be translated either as “it is” or “he is.” If the meaning is “it is,” the reference could be to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, which event was the focus of the disciples’ question. “All the things” that would occur would include wars, famines, earthquakes, the proclamation of the glad tidings, persecution of the disciples, and the appearance of the “abomination of desolation.”
For the meaning of estín as “he is,” the application would be to the approach of Jesus’ return in glory, which would also signify that the kingdom of God would be near. Possibly the reason for the nonspecific language is that most of the developments were not unique to a specific time and so did not serve as a “sign” by which to ascertain the precise time for the destruction of the temple or for the return of Christ in glory.
In the centuries that have passed since Jesus answered the disciples’ question, earth’s inhabitants have never experienced a time free from natural disasters, wars and their frightful consequences, and the persecution and the betrayal of Christians for their faith. Not until the Roman armies were actually on the scene around Jerusalem would it have been clear that the destruction of the temple was at hand. Likewise, not until the appearance of the “sign” of the “Son of Man” would there be no question about his return in glory. Therefore, all the things would take place both before the destruction of the temple and before his return.
Continuing the application of the lesson that could be learned from the fig tree, Jesus said, “Amen [Truly] I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things happen. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” (Matthew 24:34, 35; Mark 13:30, 31; Luke 21:32, 33) He had told his disciples that the temple would be destroyed, with not a stone being left upon a stone, and answered the question that his prophecy about the temple had prompted. Jesus’ solemn declaration confirmed that his words would be fulfilled and that this fulfillment would prove to be more certain than the continued existence of heaven and earth.
When Peter, James, John, and Andrew heard the words “this generation,” they would most likely have understood this to mean the generation of which they were a part and which included all their contemporaries. Within the lifetime of that contemporary generation, Jerusalem and the temple would be destroyed, and the events that Jesus said would occur prior thereto would have taken place.
It appears that Jesus, to clarify that his return in glory was not to be equated with the destruction of the temple, added, “But concerning that day and hour, no one knows, neither the angels of the heavens nor the Son, but the Father alone.” (Matthew 24:36 [The words “nor the Son” are missing in numerous manuscripts but have ancient manuscript support]; Mark 13:32)
Jesus knew that Jerusalem and the temple would be destroyed within the lifetime of the then-existing generation and that the people would experience horrific suffering. (Luke 19:41-44; 23:27-31) Based on that knowledge, he could tell the disciples what to look for in order not to be among those who would suffer inside besieged Jerusalem. In view of his not knowing just when his Father had determined for him to return with great power and glory, he framed his admonition to the disciples accordingly. Jesus told them to be watchful, remain awake, and (according to many manuscripts) pray, for they would not know the time. (Mark 13:33)
He likened the situation to a man who, before undertaking a long journey, assigned his servants their respective tasks and instructed the doorkeeper to remain awake or alert, with the implication that the doorkeeper would be ready to welcome him upon his return. Applying the parable or likeness, Jesus continued, “Stay awake [remain alert and watchful], for you do not know when the master of the house is coming.” It could be “late,” “midnight,” “cockcrowing” (the third watch of the night or from about midnight to about 3:00 a.m.) or early in the morning. Therefore, the disciples needed to remain watchful, which would mean being prepared to welcome the Son of God whenever he might arrive and not to be found asleep as would be persons who had failed to discharge their responsibilities as his disciples. Jesus then added the command for everyone, “But what I say, I say to all, Stay awake.” (Mark 13:34-37)
For Christ’s disciples to remain awake would necessitate guarding against everything that could adversely affect faithfulness to him. They needed to watch that they did not dull their senses, giving in to excesses with food and drink and thereby “burdening” their “hearts.” Besides making their “hearts” (either meaning their minds or their inmost selves, which would include their consciences) callous, the “burdening” could include adding the weight of guilt. Their hearts could also become burdened or dulled with the worries or cares of life, resulting in their no longer being alert respecting their responsibilities as Jesus’ disciples. They needed to be on guard that undue concerns and useless worries about procuring life’s necessities would not begin to weaken or wreck their faith. (Luke 21:34)
If they failed to pay attention to themselves, the “day” of Christ’s return would find them in an unprepared state. That “day” would catch them suddenly just like an animal that is caught by a snare or in a trap. There would be no escape from the consequences of that day for anyone in an unprepared state, for it would come upon all of earth’s inhabitants. “But remain awake at all times,” Jesus urged, “praying that you may be strong [enough] to escape all these things that will happen and to stand before the Son of Man.” (Luke 21:34-36)
For the disciples to escape the adverse judgment that would take place upon Jesus’ return in glory would require that they remain strong in faith and devotion, always relying on the strength the heavenly Father provides in answer to prayer. As persons who faithfully lived as devoted disciples of Jesus Christ, they would then “stand” before him as approved.
The arrival of the Son of God or the start of his royal presence would be as unexpected as the flood in the days of Noah. At that time, people were preoccupied with the common affairs of life (eating, drinking, and marrying), but this ended when Noah entered the ark. They had chosen to know nothing about what lay ahead. So the deluge unexpectedly and suddenly engulfed them and swept them all away. The Son of Man would arrive just as unexpectedly. (Matthew 24:37-39)
Those whom he found approved would be preserved and united with him, and the disapproved ones would be left behind to suffer adverse judgment. Even close associates would be affected, as Jesus’ arrival would not necessarily have the same outcome for them individually. Two men might be working in the same field, with one being found approved and the other left behind as disapproved. Two women might be grinding grain together, with one being taken to be with her Lord but the other one being abandoned. Jesus continued with the admonition, “Remain awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day [at what hour, according to other manuscripts] your Lord is coming.” (Matthew 24:40-42)
He then illustrated the importance of watchfulness. If the owner of a home had known when in the night a thief would come, he would have remained awake. The owner would not have permitted the thief to break into his house. Similarly, the disciples needed to be ready or prepared at all times, for the Son of Man would come at an unexpected “hour.” (Matthew 24:43, 44)
With the passage of time, there would be disciples who would cease to use what had been committed to them for the benefit of fellow servants. To warn about this danger and the serious consequences, Jesus related a parable. He introduced it with the question, “Who then is the faithful and wise slave whom his master put in charge of his body of servants, to give them their [due portion of] food at the appropriate time?” In this question, the slave is represented as a steward in charge of the food supplies. He had been entrusted with the duty of seeing to it that all the other slaves who labored for the master received their allowance of food at the appropriate time. If, upon his return, the master found that this slave had proved to be faithful or trustworthy, he would grant him far greater responsibility, putting him in charge of all of his possessions. As one whom his master approved, the slave would be happy, having faithfully discharged his duty. (Matthew 24:45-47 [Many of the details of this parable parallel the one in Luke 12:41-48, which includes additional features.])
On the other hand, the slave would be unmasked as evil if he misused his position, ignoring his accountability to his master and acting as one who thought he was delaying his coming. His having been entrusted with the food supplies required that he faithfully work for the good of his fellow slaves. When starting to abuse them, beating them for not complying with his tyrannical demands and indulging his selfish desires like one who chose to eat and drink with lowlifes, the evil slave also acted against the interests of his master. This evil slave was himself but a slave and had not been granted the authority of an owner, let alone an abusive and corrupt owner. (Matthew 24:48, 49)
On a “day” and in an “hour” or at a time the evil slave did not expect, the master would arrive and severely punish him (literally “cut him asunder”), treating him like the hypocrites who conceal their base ways and actions with a false front. Cast out as disapproved from the master’s household, the slave would weep bitterly and gnash his teeth (in anger over his loss, because of the pain of losing out, or in a vain effort to suppress his uncontrollable sobbing). (Matthew 24:50, 51) What a strong warning this is to all who begin to act the part of masters and fail to conduct themselves as lowly and unassuming slaves! The coming of the Son of God will definitively answer the question as to who has proved to be faithful and wise in the community of believers, selflessly laboring for them.
During the time prior to the destruction of Jerusalem, much warring occurred. Besides conflicts between Jews and Samaritans and insurrections in Galilee and Judea, battles were being waged in various parts of the Roman Empire.
News about the wars in more distant places must have reached Galilee and Judea. Commenting on reverses for the Romans during Nero’s reign, C. Suetonius Tranquillus (c. 71 to c. 135 CE; Lives of the Caesars, VI, xxxix) wrote that two major towns in Britain were sacked and many citizens and allies were slaughtered. A humiliating defeat was experienced in the “East, where, in Armenia, the legions were obliged to pass under the yoke, and it was with great difficulty that Syria was retained.” (Translation of Alexander Thomson; revised and corrected by T. Forester)
The Roman historian Tacitus described the period that included events not long before the destruction of Jerusalem as follows: “I am entering on the history of a period rich in disasters, frightful in its wars, torn by civil strife, and even in peace full of horrors. Four emperors perished by the sword. There were three civil wars; there were more with foreign enemies; there were often wars that had both characters at once. There was success in the East, and disaster in the West. There were disturbances in Illyricum; Gaul wavered in its allegiance, tribes of the Suevi and the Sarmatae rose on concert against us; the Damacians had the glory of inflicting as well as suffering defeat; the armies of Parthia were all but set in motion by the cheat of a counterfeit Nero.” (Histories, I, 2)
With the exception of Festus who succeeded Felix as procurator of Judea, the other Roman procurators administered affairs in a corrupt and oppressive manner, which gave rise to uprisings and finally to war with Rome. Tacitus described Felix as “indulging every kind of barbarity and lust” and exercising “the power of a king in the spirit of a slave.” (Histories, V, 9) Josephus referred to Albinus, the successor of Festus, as one who stole and plundered everyone’s substance, burdened the nation with taxes, and allowed the relatives of criminals to ransom them. (War, II, xiv, 1) The successor of Albinus, Gessius Florus, who assumed his office in 64 CE, was even worse. Regarding him, Josephus said, “This Florus was so wicked, and so violent in the use of his authority, that the Jews took Albinus to have been [comparatively] their benefactor; so excessive were the mischiefs that he brought upon them.” (Antiquities, XX, xi, 1)
It was during the time that Florus exercised authority, that revolt against Rome erupted. Josephus continues, “It was this Florus who necessitated us to take up arms against the Romans, while we thought it better to be destroyed at once, than by little and little. Now this war began in the second year of the government of Florus, and the twelfth year of the reign of Nero.” (Antiquities, XX, xi, 1) Tacitus (Histories, V, 10) summarizes what followed: “Yet the endurance of the Jews lasted till Gessius Florus was procurator. In his time the war broke out. Cestius Gallus, legate of Syria, who attempted to crush it, had to fight several battles, generally with ill-success. Cestius dying, either in the course of nature, or from vexation, Vespasian was sent by Nero, and by help of his good fortune, his high reputation, and his excellent subordinates, succeeded within the space of two summers in occupying with his victorious army the whole of the level country and all the cities, except Jerusalem. The following year [69 CE] had been wholly taken up with civil strife, and had passed, as far as the Jews were concerned, in inaction. Peace having been established in Italy [when Vespasian became emperor], foreign affairs were once more remembered. Our indignation was heightened by the circumstance that the Jews alone had not submitted. At the same time it was held to be more expedient, in reference to the possible results and contingencies of the new reign, that Titus should remain with the army.”
As Jesus had indicated to his disciples, there would be famines or food shortage. One severe famine affected Judea in the time of Claudius (41 to 54 CE). (Acts 11:28; Josephus, Antiquities, XX, ii, 5; v, 2) Scarcity of food was also experienced in Rome. Suetonius (Lives of the Caesars, V, xviii) referred to a shortage of grain because of bad crops for several successive years. As a result, a mob once stopped Claudius in the middle of the Forum, heaped abuse on him, and threw pieces of bread at him. With difficulty, he escaped to the palace by a back door. Later, during the period of civil strife, the stored grain in Rome had dwindled to a ten day’s supply when a shipment Vespasian had sent arrived, relieving the critical shortage. (Tacitus, Histories, IV, 53) Whenever towns and cities came under siege, extreme shortages of food were experienced by the inhabitants. So desperate did the situation become that there were instances of cannibalism. (Josephus, War VI, iii, 3, 4)
While Claudius was emperor, houses collapsed in Rome from frequent earthquake shocks, and a major earthquake occurred in Apamea, a city in Syria. (Tacitus, Annals, XII, 43, 58) During Nero’s rule (54 to 68 CE), an earthquake destroyed much of Pompeii. (Tacitus, Annals, XII, 43, 58); XV, 22) There were earthquakes in various cities of what is today Turkey, including Laodicea. (Tacitus, Annals, XIV, xxvii) Josephus (War, IV, iv, 5) referred to a frightful storm and an earthquake being experienced in Jerusalem, which he spoke of as portending a future destruction.
According to Suetonius, one of the frightful developments during Nero’s rule proved to be a plague that left about 30,000 dead in a single autumn.(Lives of the Caesars, VI, xxxix) This would fit what Luke 21:8 represents Jesus as saying about pestilences.
In the ancient world, people looked for portents and assigned meanings to various happenings. Both Josephus (War, VI, v, 3) and Tacitus mentioned signs as occurring prior to the destruction of Jerusalem, which may reflect the fulfillment of Luke 21:11 regarding fear-inspiring portents and “great signs.” The account of Tacitus, though much shorter and including fewer signs than that of Josephus, is similar: “There had been seen hosts joining battle in the skies, the fiery gleam of arms, the temple illuminated by a sudden radiance from the clouds. The doors of the inner shrine were suddenly thrown open, and a voice of more than mortal tone was heard to cry that the gods were departing. At the same instant there was a mighty stir as of departure.” (Tacitus, Histories, V, 13)
The words of Matthew 24:28 (“Wherever the carcass may be, there the vultures [plural of aetós] will gather”) probably constitute a proverbial saying. Although the Greek word aetós is the usual designation for the eagle, the vulture seems to fit the context better. Eagles are primarily solitary hunters that catch living prey, whereas vultures gather in large numbers to feed on carcasses.
Luke 21:25 refers to “signs” in the sun, moon, and stars but makes no mention of the “distress” or “tribulation” of “those days” (as do Matthew 24:29 and Mark 13:24). Verse 24 in Luke 21 tells about the consequences of the fall of Jerusalem, with the people either perishing or being taken captive and the city being trampled upon by the non-Jewish nations until their “times” are fulfilled. This would allow for the possibility that the signs in the sun, moon and stars, the panic and fear among the people, the roaring of the sea, and the shaking of the powers of the heavens (mentioned in Luke 21:25, 26) relate to a more distant future time. Accordingly, the words in Luke 21 could be used to support the view that euthéos (“immediately”) does not necessarily have a strict temporal sense in Matthew 24:29.
Both the destruction of Jerusalem and the coming of the Son of Man in power and glory are associated with adverse judgment on unbelievers. In Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Joel, the imagery (including the darkening of the heavenly bodies) associated with such judgments is the same as Jesus is represented as having used. Therefore, it does not seem likely that the “signs” in the sun, moon, and stars designate extraordinary celestial phenomena. The imagery, if applying to the situation just prior to Christ’s return in glory, would simply serve to convey a very distressing time.
Another possibility is that Matthew 24:29 and Mark 13:24 may refer to the dark or gloomy period subsequent to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, whereas verses 25 and 26 of Luke 21 may be descriptive of the distressing time immediately preceding Jesus’ coming in glory. Verse 31 of Luke 21 may support this conclusion. There the reference is to the nearness of the kingdom of God, which event is directly associated with Jesus’ coming in power and glory. Upon his return, he would manifest his full kingly authority, removing all opposition to his rule. Regardless of how one may understand the words in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all three accounts do place the period of darkness after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.
To illustrate what he looked for in those whom he would acknowledge as belonging to him when he returned, Jesus related three parables or likenesses. The first one dealt with ten virgins who were waiting for the arrival of the bridegroom. In the second parable, Jesus referred to slaves whom their master had entrusted with talents prior to his undertaking a long trip. Then, in the third parable, Jesus represented himself as separating people like a shepherd separates sheep from goats.
Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13)
Jesus likened a feature of the “kingdom of the heavens” to ten virgins who, with lamps in their hands, went to meet the bridegroom and also, according to a number of manuscripts, the bride. (Matthew 25:1) In the case of actual wedding festivities, this would have been in the evening, at the time the bridegroom would be conducting his bride from the home of her parents and taking her to his home or that of his father. Friends, musicians, and singers would accompany the bridegroom and the bride. Along the way, others would join the procession. The ten virgins of the parable are represented as intending to do this.
Five of the virgins were foolish or failed to use good judgment, and the other five were wise or sensible. Whereas all ten virgins took their lamps, the thoughtless ones did not prepare themselves with a supply of olive oil for their lamps in case they would need to wait a long time for the bridegroom to arrive. The sensible virgins, however, did take containers filled with oil. (Matthew 25:2-4)
After waiting for a long time alongside the road where the bridegroom would be passing with his entourage, the ten virgins fell asleep. Then, in the middle of the night, they were awakened by a joyous shout coming from a distance, “Look! The bridegroom. Go out to meet him.” The ten virgins then got up and “trimmed” their lamps, probably meaning that they adjusted the wicks. (Matthew 25:5-7)
Noticing that their lamps were about to go out from lack of oil, the senseless virgins asked the others to share their supply with them. This the sensible virgins refused to do, as it could have meant that the reduced amount of oil would have been insufficient to keep their own lamps lit. They advised them to leave and buy oil. (Matthew 25:8, 9)
While the foolish virgins were on the way to make their purchases, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who had properly prepared themselves joined the procession and entered the house with him to share in the wedding banquet. After all those who had joined the procession were inside, the door was shut, preventing anyone else from joining the festivities. (Matthew 25:10)
When the other five virgins arrived, they stood before the closed door, calling out, “Lord, lord, open to us!” He turned them away, saying that he did not know them. They had not been a part of the joyous procession, using their lamps to shed light along the way. So he accorded them no recognition as welcome guests. (Matthew 25:11, 12)
Applying the point of the parable, Jesus concluded, “Stay awake, therefore, for you do not know the day or the hour [in which the Son of Man is coming, according to numerous later manuscripts].” (Matthew 25:13) The parable illustrates that there would be those who appeared to be part of the realm where God is Sovereign and reigns by means of his Son, the king whom he has appointed. Yet, when the Son of God would arrive in glory, they would be found in an unprepared state.
Being ready at that time would not mean remaining in what might be regarded as a state of eschatological frenzy or of the heightened alertness and intensified activity associated with extreme emergencies. In the parable, all the virgins are portrayed as falling asleep, suggesting that the normal routine of life is maintained.
On another occasion, Jesus stressed the need for his disciples to let their light shine, which would be by making expressions about their faith in him, maintaining exemplary conduct, and responding compassionately to the needs of others (Matthew 5:14-16) For a time, the senseless virgins of the parable did have lit lamps. When, however, the bridegroom arrived, their lamps were about to go out. Accordingly, upon his return in glory, Jesus will find professing believers whose love for him and his Father has been extinguished and whose disposition, words, and actions have ceased to be praiseworthy. In their case, it will be too late for rekindling that love and letting their light shine brightly in word and deed, and a participatory sharing with those whose light is brilliant will then not be possible.
The Talents (Matthew 25:14-31)
With apparent reference to another feature associated with the kingdom of the heavens, Jesus likened it to a man who, when about to travel out of the country, called his slaves and entrusted them with his belongings. Based on his evaluation of their individual ability, the master gave five talents to one slave, two to another, and one to a third slave, and then left on his journey. (Matthew 25:14, 15) A talent was the largest monetary unit in the first century CE and equaled 6,000 drachmas or a sum a common laborer would earn in approximately 15 years. So even the slave entrusted with one talent would have been responsible for a large amount of money, reflecting his master’s confidence in his ability and trustworthiness.
The slave with five talents immediately went to work to increase his master’s assets and eventually doubled the amount. With his two talents, the other slave likewise engaged in business activities and, in time, acquired two additional talents. The slave to whom one talent had been given did nothing to increase the asset. He merely dug a hole in the ground and then hid the money. (Matthew 25:16-18)
After a long time had passed, the master returned and had his slaves render an account respecting the talents entrusted to them. The one to whom the five talents had been committed told him that he had gained an additional five talents. “Excellent, good and trustworthy slave,” said the master. “You were trustworthy over a few things. I will put you in charge over many things. Enter into the joy of your master.” His trustworthiness brought pleasure to his master, and he would be sharing in his master’s joy upon being highly honored with a position of even greater trust and responsibility. (Matthew 25:19, 20)
When the slave with the two talents reported that he had gained two more, his master commended him with the identical words. “Excellent, good and trustworthy slave. You were trustworthy over a few things. I will put you in charge over many things. Enter into the joy of your master.” (Matthew 25:22, 23) The master is thus represented as highly valuing trustworthiness in keeping with individual ability and as having the same appreciation for both slaves.
With a demeaning view of his master, the slave with the one talent said, “I knew that you were a hard man, reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you did not disperse. And being fearful, I went and hid your talent in the ground. Look! [Here] you have yours.” (Matthew 25:24, 25) This response represents the slave as implying that he had fulfilled his duty, keeping the talent safe for his master, and so had no additional responsibility upon returning it.
After condemning him as evil and lazy, the master continued, “You knew, [did you], that I reaped where I did not sow and gathered where I did not disperse? So, then, you should have given my money [literally silver] to the bankers, and, upon my return, I would have received my [money] with interest.” (Matthew 25:26, 27)
The master then commanded that the talent be taken away from the useless slave and given to the one who had ten talents. This action was in harmony with the principle that more would be given to the one who has, and he would come to have an abundance; but the one who does not have much because of his untrustworthiness and sluggishness would have the little he does have taken away from him. (Matthew 25:28, 29) In having been represented as one who proved himself trustworthy with what had been entrusted to him and commendably capable of greatly increasing his master’s assets, the slave with the ten talents is the one who received the additional talent.
The master ordered the useless slave to be thrown out of the estate. Without a place in a lighted residence, the slave would then find himself in the darkness outside. There, in expression of his loss, grief, and possibly also anger, he would weep bitterly and gnash his teeth. (Matthew 25:30)
Jesus’ parable suggested that a long time would pass before he would return in glory and that among those professing to be in the realm where he reigns by his Father’s appointment would be individuals who would fail to advance his interests. In expressing his judgment, Jesus would take into consideration individual circumstances and abilities. He would richly reward all who have proved themselves to be faithful or trustworthy in using what has been given them to advance his cause.
Inaction, on the other hand, constitutes working against Jesus and would lead to serious loss. In the parable, the useless slave is represented as having a wrong view of his master and working against his master’s interests by not even letting others help him to increase the asset committed to him. This suggests that a failure to appreciate the Son of God for who he is and what he has done contributes to serious neglect and eventual loss of everything.
Sheep and Goats (Matthew 25:31-46; 26:1, 2)
Upon his arrival in glory, the Son of Man, accompanied by angels, would seat himself on his glorious or splendid throne as king. In this portrayal, Jesus revealed that he would come as one vested with royal authority, which included his role as judge. In this capacity, he would separate people (all the nations assembled before him) in the manner that a shepherd separates sheep from goats, placing the one group on his right and the other one on his left. (Matthew 25:31-33) The right side would denote approval and a favorable judgment, whereas the left side would signify disapproval and condemnation.
As animals, goats are hardier than sheep, less dependent on the care of a herder, and can be destructive to the environment on account of their feeding habits. The negative light in which persons placed on the left are represented, however, does not reflect on the value of goats as domestic animals. In the parable, the use of sheep and goats serves primarily to illustrate the separation of a collective whole into two distinct groups. The differences in sheep and goats are not the focus of the parable, for both animals are incapable of the kind of human actions that provide the basis for judgment.
Jesus speaks of himself as king and identifies those on his right as blessed by his Father, inviting them to inherit the kingdom prepared for them from the world’s foundation. (Matthew 25:34) This reveals that from the very beginning, his Father’s purpose was for humans to be in his realm and to conduct themselves as his loyal subjects. The invitation to those who are judged as approved is for them to share in all the benefits and blessings associated with the realm where Jesus rules by his Father’s appointment and where his Father is recognized as Sovereign.
Jesus represented himself as explaining the reason for the favorable judgment. Those on his right had given him food when he was hungry, supplied him with drink when he was thirsty, welcomed him when he was a stranger, clothed him when he lacked needed apparel, cared for him in times of sickness, and came to him in prison, the implication being for the purpose of providing aid and comfort.
The upright, compassionate individuals would be surprised by his words. They would wonder when they had seen him in the state he had described and cared for his needs. The answer would be, “Amen [Truly], I say to you, Insofar as you did it to one of the least of my brothers, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:37-40)
The least, most insignificant, or lowly ones are commonly persons who are overlooked in their time of desperate need. In the parable, those who responded compassionately did so when they became aware of the plight of the lowly ones.
The parable of the merciful Samaritan reveals that any human in dire straits is rightly the object of a compassionate aid. As Jesus did not restrict the meaning of “neighbor,” there is no reason to conclude that this parable is to be construed to mean that the least of Christ’s brothers refers to a very limited number of people who adhere to a certain set of beliefs and practices. Jesus himself surrendered his life for all. Therefore, when regarded in the widest sense, he is a brother to the whole human family and looks favorably upon those who reveal themselves to be caring persons. The Roman centurion Cornelius proved to be such a compassionate man. Both his prayers and the kindly aid he had rendered to others ascended as a “memorial before God.” (Acts 10:4)
While loyal disciples of God’s Son recognize the prior claim of family members and those related to them in the faith as taking precedence, they help needy fellow humans whenever they are in position to do so. They recognize their obligation to do good to all. (Galatians 6:10)
Turning to those on his left, Jesus represented himself as saying, “Go away from me, cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Matthew 25:41) This dreadful judgment of loss would not be temporary but permanent and irreversible. The “fire” would be like the “eternal fire” that reduced the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to perpetual ruin. (Jude 7) The judgment is the same as that reserved for the devil and his minions.
The reason for the dreadful judgment is that the disapproved ones had proved to be without compassion. In the person of needy ones, they had seen Jesus hungry and thirsty, as a lone stranger, naked, sick, and in prison, but they did nothing. These disapproved ones, like the approved ones, are quoted as addressing Jesus as Lord and asking when they saw him “hungry or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not attend to [him].” The answer is that they failed to care for the least of Christ’s brothers in their time of need. Therefore, they would experience an eternal punishment, losing the opportunity for the enjoyment of the real life that is distinguished by an enduring relationship with the Son of God and his Father. This is the life, the eternal life, to be enjoyed in the sinless state, which those whom Jesus approves will receive as their inheritance. (Matthew 25:42-46)
When individuals can render aid to those in dire need but refuse to do so, they reveal themselves to be callous, seriously lacking in love and compassion. Without essential food, drink, clothing and shelter, humans cannot survive. Those who are seriously ill need care; otherwise they will die. In the first century CE, many people were unjustly imprisoned and their circumstances were so deplorable that their survival depended on the provisions visitors would bring to them. These loving and caring visitors proved to be courageous persons who were not ashamed to identify themselves as friends of those who were imprisoned. (Compare 2 Timothy 1:16, 17; Hebrews 10:34.)
Accordingly, persons who refuse to render aid when they could have done so make themselves guilty of a neglect tantamount to murder. As hateful murderers like the devil, they would deserve the same punishment in store for him and his angels. (Compare John 8:44; James 2:15, 16; 1 John 3:15-17.)
After relating the parables, Jesus told his disciples that he would be crucified. It was then just two days before the Passover. (Matthew 26:1, 2)