Nobody Knows


Introduction: In this chapter, Jesus answers two questions of his disciples. “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age? The first question concerns the destruction of the temple which occurred in AD 70. The second concerns his personal return to judge the nations and establish his eternal reign in his visibly manifest kingdom. Jesus compares the one time with the other and in doing so leaves us with overlapping ideas.


I. Context – Our text illustrates the thesis that Jesus pronounces in verse 36 – “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. The words “day” and “hour” do not mean literally the twenty-four hour period or the sixty minute period, but are terms used generally for time. None can tell when the Son will return. This means that the descriptions he gives of the time of his returning is indeterminate and has not clearly identifiable traits that distinguish it from other periods of time.

A. Jesus first identifies the presence of several things that identify life in a fallen world, both before the fall of Jerusalem and after it.

  1. Verse 4, 5 – They must not be led astray with false reports of his coming. That such errors were rampant immediately we learn from 2 Thessalonians 2:2 and 2 Timothy 2:18. Other false teachings surrounding the coming of Christ also surfaced as indicated by 2 Peter 3:4, 5.
  2. Verses 6, 7a – The reports of severe conflicts between nations could alarm people that the end is near, but such conflicts are regular fare for nations and powerful rulers inflated with their own sense of self-importance and lust for power. It is a symptom of the fall of man, not a sign of the return of Christ.
  3. Famines and earthquakes will occur periodically, some more severe than others, but all this indicates only that we are in a world groaning until it final redemption (Romans 8:19-22). Paul obviously was familiar with this teaching of Jesus for he uses the same analogy concerning the tumults of nature, “groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.”
  4. All of these are recurring and consistent traits of this fallen world. There will be perversions of Christian teaching, wars, conflicts, and tensions between nations, calamities in nature. They all are evidence that the world is yearning and groaning for a new order. Truth must be established so that no longer will there be wavering and the deceit of lies; the kings and rulers of the earth will give way to the righteous judge and receive his just verdict concerning the actions of all nations and individuals; the world will burst its bonds to corruption, its renovating energies will be unleashed and a new heaven and new earth will come forth. Peter spoke of this in 2 Peter 3:10-13.

B. He then speaks specifically about what will happen between his resurrection and the fall of Jerusalem. Verses 9-14. The apostolic age will bear these characteristics.

  1. The apostles, who receive authority from being appointed by God (Acts 10:41) and knew the truth by the promised divine revelation (John 14:26; 1 Corinthians 2:10), would be opposed, imprisoned, hated, and put to death (Acts 7:58 [a deacon], Acts 12:1-4; 2 Peter 1:13, 14).
  2. Many who profess to believe the gospel will, in fact, succumb to the pressure and deny their profession of belief in order to save their earthly life (1 John 2:18, 19; Hebrews 2:1-4;
  3. Verse 11 – False prophets will arise (2 Peter 2:1; 2 Corinthians 11:13-15; 1 John 4:1-6). Peter wrote of “scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing,” a phenomenon that he observed as a present danger to the church. So, as Paul below, he referred to his own age as “the last days.”
  4. Many who appeared to have zeal for Christ and his truth will grow cold and fall away (2 Timothy 3:1-5 [Note that Paul considered this as happening already in the ‘last days.’] 4:3, 4; 1 Corinthians 16:22).
  5. This will be a winnowing time; those who do not have true faith will fall away but those who have the root of the matter in them will endure. Their suffering will be a purification by chastening (Hebrews 12:3-8; 1 Peter 1:3-7).
  6. The gospel will break beyond Jerusalem and become active in all the nations of the world, that is, the distinct people groups of the Gentiles will have received the gospel so that it is seen that a new people of god is being formed. Note that Paul said that the gospel “has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and growing” (Colossians 1:6). He also said that the gospel “has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I Paul became a minister” (Colossians 1:23).
  7. “Then the end will come.” The temple will be destroyed and the entire presence of the ceremonial law will be eliminated. Jerusalem will no longer be the center either of Judaism or of Christianity. Jews will be disbursed, they will be given over to severe trial. As Paul had clearly indicated, the church now would be mainly a Gentile movement until by sovereign grace God began to call many native sons of Israel to faith in Christ (Romans 11:11-32).

C. He then describes what will characterize the immediate time falls. Verse 15-25.

  1. The Abomination that brings desolation will occur. As had happened during the Maccabean period, a Gentile army will surround Jerusalem and profane its holy places. This coming of the Roman army, now led by Titus, had been provoked by a Jewish uprising in an attempt to overthrow the rule of Rome in Jerusalem. Christians were not to join with that rebellion, but were to remain as a distinct people from that Jewish political and military posturing.
  2. When they saw that, Christians were to flee Jerusalem. They would not have time to gather their belongings and make a calm and peaceful exit. Such a flight would be particularly difficult for those who were pregnant or had young children. For those who had scruples about obeying the rules of a Sabbath Day’s journey (about 2000 cubits or 1050 yards) would not even be able to distance themselves from the destruction. These descriptions indicate how quickly they must leave in order to avoid getting caught up in what would be a monumental time of slaughter and conflict based on the national and ethnic ambitions of the Jews.
  3. The suffering of this time would be very severe, but would not be superseded in any age. Other ages would see Christian communities caught up in times of persecution, but they would not be more severe than that experienced in this first generation of Christians.
  4. For the sake of the elect, the persecution will be cut short.
  5. Had the tribulation continued as it had begun and with its original intent and ferocity, none would have survived it.
  • God, however, after a period of suffering would put an end to it that physical life might continue for a while in order that the propagation of the gospel might continue through a purified people. Peter obviously had this discourse in mind when he gave instruction to the Christians to whom he wrote that they should not be surprised at suffering. He told them its purpose and how to go through it (Read 1 Peter 4:12-19 for a good commentary on this passage in Matthew). He also was convinced that “After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Peter 5:10).
  • This suffering will be paradigmatic of the continuing conflict between the world and the people of God, between Christ and Satan (1 Peter 5:6-9). Those who claim absolute and exclusive truth in the gospel of Christ will find that the relativism and naturalism of the world is a constant force of opposition and ridicule and sometimes even a threat to personal safety.
  1. Again false reports of the coming or presence of Christ will begin. So hopeful of his intervention will Christians be, that, if it were possible, they would be deceived by these reports. We have the second mention of God’s particular concern for his elect. Though the situation will make the possibility of deceit very high, yet the elect will not be deceived by these false reports.
  2. Jesus ends this explanation with an emphatic conclusion, “See, I have told you beforehand” (25).

D. How will the world appear when the Son of Man comes? Verses 26-31

  1. These reports assume that the coming of the Son of Man somehow will be a clandestine operation and that his coming again will be under the cover of secrecy (“in the wilderness . . . in the inner rooms”) as his first coming was under the cover of humiliation.
  2. When he comes again in glory, there will be no need for a gradual unveiling of his person and his purpose as there was in his humiliation of rejection and suffering. When that has been accomplished, he will come in the glory of his resurrection and his glorification, appearing as the ultimate Man to whom believers will be conformed but also with the power of omnipotence and the visibility of omnipresence. As lightning spreads light from one end of the sky to the other, so will Christ’s coming be visible to all flesh.
  3. When one drives down the road and sees carrion eaters swarming on the ground and in the air, he knows that they have found a dead animal. When God’s time is right for the return of the Son of Man, it will occur and all will see it and know that the time has come.

E. What is the sign, therefore of the coming of the Son of Man?

  1. “After the tribulation of those days;” That is, the tribulation that characterizes the entire period between the fall of Jerusalem until the coming of the Son of man. The entire time between the two advents is the time of tribulation. There might be an intensification and a broadening of it presence, but it will not be of a different nature than that which always has been present for believers in this world.
  2. The signs of a renovated order will begin to appear and the Son of man will come in visible glory. All the nations of the world will know that judgment has come, they will mourn for the period of probation has past and the final assignment of eternal status is coming. (See Zechariah 12:10, 12 and Revelation 1:7 “every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him.”
  3. All of the elect will be gathered from the entire globe. It was for the ingathering of all the elect that the world continued (2 Peter 3:9, 15) and the calling of the last elect person will consummate the age and invoke the appearing of Christ, as quickly and unexpectedly as a thief (2 Peter 3:10) to judge the nations, all the people (2 Peter 3:7), and to establish his presence with his redeemed ones forever.
  4. The signs, therefore, already have been fulfilled in the generation of the apostles (verse 34). Even now, Christ is “near, at the very gates” (verse 33).
  5. All that Jesus said came to pass as he said. That picture of the operation of the saints in the world was true then and has remained true until now, and will be the same until the return of Christ. The gospel will continue to be preached to the end of the age and God will continue calling his elect, so we consider the “patience of our God as salvation.” The world will not soften in it opposition to God’s truth and so will reject, ridicule, ostracize, and at times persecute, sometimes with intense physical violence, those who are the true followers of Christ and look to his coming.


II. Always remain ready, for the Lord already is “at the very gates.” Concerning that day an hour, no one knows, not the angels in heaven nor even the Son.

A. At the time of this discourse, Jesus speaking by the Spirit and in his humanity, had been isolated from that knowledge. In his humanity, Jesus increased in wisdom. His knowledge and his perfect ability to apply it continually increased throughout his life as the man who was being perfected ( Luke 2:52; Hebrews 5:8). This event was hidden even from him at this time. John A Broadus made this comment: “If there was to be a real incarnation of the Eternal Word, then the body he took must be a real body, and the mind a real mind. How his divine nature could be omniscient, and his human mind limited in knowledge, both being united in one person, is part of the mystery of the Incarnation, which we need not expect to solve.” If Christ in his perfection of moral rectitude and full commitment to all that the Father willed, had this event hidden from him at this time, and yet trusted fully even though he would go through the torturous propitiatory death, how willingly and joyfully should we submit to the mystery of our future with absolute trust in a faithful creator and Father.

B. Life will be proceeding normally when Christ returns. Social gatherings for weddings and for celebration will occur as if life will continue to proceed in its apparently unbroken progress from one generation to another. Suddenly, however, judgment will come and sweep away all unbelievers. So as it was in Noah’s day, with that preacher of righteousness giving warning and preparing, ignored by his peers, until the flood actually in a moment began with rain and the breaking up of the subterranean oceans, so God will shut the door on any opportunity for repentance. With such unawareness will the coming of the Son of Man be consummated.

C. People going about their normal activities of labor, providing for the food for that day, or preparing for a store of it for the future will find themselves immediately separated into those that are taken away by judgment and those taken, gathered, to be with Christ. It seems that the ones “taken” are those, like the days of Noah, that are swept up in judgment. First Thessalonians 4:17 (“caught up together . . . to meet the Lord in the air,”) and 5:1-4 (“the day of the Lord will come . . . then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman”). The emphasis seems to be on the side of sudden judgment; in that case, it will be mercy to be the one “left.” Broadus remarked, “In either view of this phrase the main thought of the passage remains the same; it shall be well with one and ill with the other, and there will be no time for preparing.” Again, the warning– “You do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”

D. The coming of a thief is unannounced. He does not give away the strategy, but homeowners must be vigilant against such a possibility at all times. Jesus is not compared to a thief as one who takes what isn’t his own, but the point is that “you also must be ready.” He comes “at an hour you do not expect.” Peter used the analogy of a thief in 2 Peter 3:10 as did Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:2.

E. Two types of servants are used to emphasize the necessity of careful and consistent stewardship of all that we have for the glory of God.

  1. The one servant who serves well and understands that what he governs is not his own but belongs to his master, will make sure that he abides by the expectations given him. He feeds his fellow servants at the proper time and cares for all over which he has charge. In the day when his master returns, he will be given charge over more. (Look at 25:21).
  2. A wicked servant, thinking that his master will delay his coming, elated with the advantages that he has with so much at his disposal, uses it for his own immediate pleasure. He beats other servants who may object to his mishandling of the master’s property. Then, “on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know” The master returned. The unfaithful servant received severe punishment in the place of the gnashing of teeth (hell) and in company with hypocrites about whom Jesus said, “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?’ (Matthews 23:33, See preceding verses 25-32 for the parallels to the unfaithful servant).
  3. As we live in the present and immanent, we must have a constant awareness of the reality of the future and transcendent. If we live in the present and immanent with an eye only to its pleasures and self-satisfaction, we will find ourselves bound up in the transitory and lost to the eternal.

F. Christ surely will come again. We cannot know when and those who seek to fascinate believers and line their pockets with grandiose and spectacular predictions by reading signs and writing books about it violate all these warnings and teachings of Jesus. The signs have been accomplished since the apostolic generation and now we await Christ bursting through the gates of heaven with his “mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all wo have believed” (2 Thessalonians 1:8-10).

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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