Many modern readers have felt uncomfortable with the picture of Jesus as an end-time prophet. Nevertheless, even if one starts with historical skepticism, Jesus clearly taught on the end time. Much of Jesus' final discourse in Matthew comes from Mark and Q, but even where Matthew adds elements (such as the trumpet in 24:31), we often have other evidence that Jesus spoke these words. Our earliest extant Christian document, 1 Thessalonians, alludes to some of the same words of Jesus ("according to the Lord's own word," 1 Thess 4:15): clouds, gathering of the elect, angel(s), lawlessness, apostasy, defilement of God's temple, the parousia, coming as a thief, sudden destruction on the wicked, and so on (4:13--5:11; compare 2 Thess 2:1-12; Waterman 1975; D. Wenham 1984). Some of Jesus' other words, for instance about unknown times and seasons (Acts 1:7), also appear there. But this common ground not only helps us defend the reliability of the Gospels; it also reminds us that Paul, unlike some Bible teachers today, saw no difference between Jesus' coming for the saints and his coming at the end of the age to judge the world.
Modern prophecy teachers have traditionally looked to current events for signs of the end, to stir end-time enthusiasm among Christians. While the goal may be worthy, the methodology runs counter to Jesus' own teaching. After listing many of the signs (usually hardships) that characterized the end among contemporary Jewish thinkers and visionaries, Jesus declares that the end is still to come (v. 6; compare Rev 6:1-8). Jewish people called such events the "birth-pangs of the Messiah" (Morris 1972:23), but Jesus declares that these are merely the beginning of birth pains (Mt 24:8). Besides missing Jesus' point, modern prophecy teachers are also almost always wrong; for one survey of missed prophecies--often reinterpreting the same biblical texts differently from decade to decade, as headlines change--see Wilson 1977.
While catastrophic events do not allow us to predict how soon the Lord is coming--such events have happened throughout history (Ladd 1956:72 n. 1; pace Frost 1924:18-19)--they do remind us that such problems characterize this age, summoning us to long for our Lord's coming all the more fervently. Jesus warns us what kind of sufferings we must face. His teaching presupposes important knowledge about the end time, but its repeated exhortations show that its emphasis is on how to live in light of that reality (see Lane 1974:446; Hill 1979:63). Thus it makes good sermon material if we catch Jesus' point!
Wickedness, or more literally and specifically "lawlessness," could characterize especially the outwardly religious (Mt 23:28; compare Jude 4) but probably applies to the society as a whole, including wicked rulers (2 Thess 2:3, 7-8). Nevertheless, as a consequence even the hearts of most (literally, "the many," perhaps denoting disciples--compare Mt 20:28) will become loveless (compare 22:37-39), hence capable of betrayal. Although the promise that one who stands firm to the end will be saved (24:13; compare v. 22) could refer to survival (as in 4 Ezra 6:25), the context of apostasy suggests that enduring to salvation here may refer to the same demand that phrase implies in most New Testament passages: that only those who continue in the faith will receive salvation at the final day (compare 7:13-14; Marshall 1974:73).
Perhaps just as Israel, because of disobedience, ruled the land promised to Abraham only twice in its history (Gen 15:18; 1 Kings 4:21; 2 Chron 34:5-7), so the Lord's return has been delayed and the world's suffering prolonged by the church's disobedience to the Great Commission (see 2 Pet 3:9-15; Ford 1979:76). While some generations have come much closer than others, the Lord will not return until he has found a generation of servants devoted enough to fulfill the worldwide missions task he has commanded.
Whereas Matthew 28:18-20 is a commission, 24:14 is also a promise that some generation will succeed in finishing the task others have begun. African, Asian and Latin American Christians are in the forefront of world evangelism today; Christ's followers among many peoples must labor together for the harvest. But this mission cannot be done in human strength. The first generation of the church experienced the most rapid exponential growth while lacking all the resources Western Christians think necessary to accomplish the task today, such as money, literature, mass transportation and communication. But they had what much of the Western church today lacks: a faithful dependence on the Holy Spirit (compare 10:20; Mk 13:11; Acts 1:8). With a world population five times what it was a mere century and a half ago, the stakes have never been as high as they are now. Let us pray for laborers for the Lord's harvest (Mt 9:38), that we may become that promised generation.
We should note the context in which this worldwide evangelism occurs: suffering (24:9-13; more explicitly in Mk 13:9-11, earlier applied by Matthew to his fuller discourse on evangelism). Many early Christians recognized suffering as a prerequisite for the end (Col 1:24; Rev 6:10-11; compare 4 Ezra 4:3-37), because Christians' suffering is inseparable from our witness. It is when we are least comfortable with the world that we most dramatically proclaim the kingdom of our Lord. Further, just as most mission fields in history were opened through the blood of martyrs, many peoples will not be reached today without Christians who are prepared to lay down their lives for the gospel Jesus has called us to proclaim.