Many popular prophecy teachers have created an end-time scenario very different from, and far more complex than, the one taught by Jesus. At the same time, they have rightly reminded many in the body of Christ that we should be ready for Christ's unexpected return.Since the Temple's Desolation, the End Has Been Imminent (24:32-35) This passage probably suggests that the temple's desolation constitutes the final visible prerequisite for the kingdom before the cosmic signs of Jesus' return. Because fig trees, unlike most trees in Palestine, lost their leaves seasonally, their fruit indicated the season (Jeremias 1971:106; Song 2:13). The temple establishment was like fig trees with the veneer of maturity yet without fruit (Mt 21:19; compare Mk 11:12-25). Though some wish to take generation (genea) as "race," Matthew 23:35-36 leaves no doubt that Jesus uses the term normally and, as elsewhere in Matthew, refers to the climactic generation. Jerusalem fell about forty years after Jesus' warning. Once God had judged the fruitless authorities who dominate the temple, Jesus could return at any time.Jesus' Coming Will Catch Most People Unawares (24:36-44) The day in this passage may well refer to the day of the Lord (as in 1 Thess 5:2; see Cullmann 1950:43). Such a warning prevents suffering believers from building up undue expectations that would set them up for exploitation (Mt 24:23-27); this sort of warning was especially critical in view of the tendency of many of Jesus' contemporaries to predict signs of the end (see comment on 24:6-8).
Like the flood, the Son of Man's coming (Dan 7:13-14) would arrive as sudden and unexpected judgment, without explicit warning. Jesus' followers might recognize the completion of requisite signs (compare 1 Thess 5:4-6), but for outsiders, life would be business as usual (banquets and weddings, or grinding with a hand mill). This passage echoes the damnable folly of outsiders repeated throughout the Gospel tradition in general and Matthew in particular (as in 13:19; 15:10): they do not understand (24:27, 39). If Jesus means "taken in judgment" (Jer 6:11; 8:13; compare Ps. Sol. 13:11), the "taking" parallels the different expression in Matthew 24:39, where the flood took the wicked away (see Lk 17:34-37; contrast Sirach 44:16-17).
Keep watch does not mean "look for" or "anticipate immediately," but borrows the image of a night watchman at his post (Mt 24:42; 25:13; Ladd 1974b:208): the believer must remain prepared for the Lord's coming, remaining alert and awake (26:38, 40-41, 43-46). That the time of Jesus' coming is unknown does not preclude that some signs mentioned earlier in the passage will precede it (compare Gundry 1982:491-92; Katterjohn and Fackler 1976:118-19), any more than such ideas were incompatible in various ancient Jewish end-time views (see, for example, Bonsirven 1964:53). The early Christians often reused Jesus' image of a householder unprepared for a nocturnal thief (compare Joel 2:9) for Jesus' return at the end (1 Thess 5:2, 4; 2 Pet 3:10; Rev 3:3; 16:15).