“what will be the sign of your coming.” This question of the disciples was prompted by Jesus saying that not one stone in all the buildings around them would be left upon another (Matt. 24:2). The “coming” of Christ that the disciples asked about in this verse is misunderstood by most Christians. As we study the verse, we will see that the Apostles were not speaking of Jesus “coming” from heaven to earth, but were talking about him simply coming into Jerusalem and conquering it.
It is important to properly understand both the Apostles’ question and Jesus’ answer. It helps if we remember that the Apostles asked this question during the last week of Jesus’ life here on earth, and even though they had been with him for a long time, there was a lot they did not understand. For example, the Apostles did not think of Jesus’ “coming” the way we do today. Therefore, we must be careful not to read our understanding of the coming of Christ back into the minds of the Apostles and disciples.
The Apostles did not think of Jesus’ “coming” as “coming from heaven.” To fully understand this, it is helpful to know that the word translated “coming” is parousia (#3952 παρουσία; pronounced par-oo-see’-ah), a fairly common Greek word with several different meanings, including to refer to a king or official “coming,” “arriving,” the “presence” of the person after he arrived, or a “visit,” in the biblical sense of visiting in blessing or judgment. The visit of a king, for example, was referred to as a parousia.
The BDAG Greek-English lexicon says that parousia was “the official term for a visit of a person of high rank, esp. of kings and emperors visiting a province.” Robert Mounce writes that parousia “is widely used in nonbiblical texts for the arrival of a person of high status” (New International Biblical Commentary). Ann Nyland writes that the Emperor Nero wanted as many people present as possible at his parousia to Corinth (The Source New Testament; note for Matt. 24:3). Visits by dignitaries were expensive, so the cost of the “visit” was often paid for by special taxes that were levied, making the parousia of a high-ranking official a burdensome event for many people. A parousia was a public event, because kings and dignitaries arrived with great pomp and pageantry. So when the Apostles asked Jesus about his parousia, they understood that when he came in judgment and to set up his kingdom it would be something everyone would see. It was not going to be an event that was private or hidden from public view.
Even after Christians started using parousia as a technical term for the “coming” of Christ from heaven, which they did after Jesus ascended into heaven, it still never lost its ordinary meaning of the arrival or personal presence of someone important. So, for example, Paul refers to the “coming” (parousia) of Stephanas (1 Cor. 16:17) and the “coming” (parousia) of Titus (2 Cor. 7:6-7). Paul also uses parousia to refer to his own “coming” to visit people (Phil. 1:26; 2:12), and in 2 Thessalonians 2:9 he refers to the “coming” (parousia) of the antichrist. Then Paul uses another meaning of parousia, “personal presence,” in 2 Corinthians 10:10.
Knowing the many meanings of parousia helps us understand that just because the Apostles asked, “what will be the sign of your coming,” that does not mean that they knew he was going to come down from heaven. They did not even know he was going to die, so they certainly did not understand the things that were going to happen to him after his death; i.e., his resurrection, ascension into heaven, and his coming back to earth from heaven.
The Apostles could not have known about Jesus’ coming from heaven when they asked him about it as recorded in Matthew 24:3, because they did not know about it a couple days later at the Last Supper (almost one-quarter of the Gospel of John is taken up by the Last Supper; chapters 13-17). At that final meal before his arrest, in a lengthy teaching and prayer, Jesus told the Apostles he was going away to the Father. But the Apostles did not understand what he was saying to them. They said among themselves, “We do not understand what he is saying” (John 16:18; see commentary on John 16:31).
Since the Apostles did not know Jesus was going to die, be raised, ascend, or return to earth from heaven, what did they mean by the question, “What will be the sign of your coming…”? To answer that question it is vital to remember that Jesus had been speaking of the city of Jerusalem and that it would be destroyed (Matt. 24:1-2). Although Jerusalem was controlled by the Romans, the Apostles knew that it was going to be conquered by the Messiah, and that he would rule the earth from there (Isa. 2:1-3; Jer. 3:17; Micah 4:1-2; Zech. 2:12). So when Jesus spoke of the destruction of the Temple, it was natural for the Apostles to ask when it would happen.
Jesus was going to “come” to Jerusalem, bring the “present evil age” to an end, and start the new age. The New Jerusalem, the new Temple, and the division of the land of Israel when Jesus rules the earth is described in Ezekiel chapters 40-48. The essence of the Apostles’ question was, “Tell us when you are going to come to Jerusalem in judgment and end this age?” It is possible that the Apostles thought that Jesus was going to go back to Galilee for a while before he came in judgment. Or, since Isaiah said that the Messiah would come from Edom, splattered in blood (Isa. 63:1-4), they may have thought he needed to leave Jerusalem and start his conquest of the earth from another place.
What the Apostles were asking was, “When are you going to come to Jerusalem to conquer and judge it, and end this present evil age?” Roger Hahn writes, “The fact that they connected the coming of the Messiah and the end of the age reflected their acceptance of the general Jewish understandings of eschatology. Most Jews believed human history was divided into two great ages: the present, evil age and the glorious age to come. …The ages overlapped during the lifetime of the Messiah” (Matthew: A Commentary for Bible Students). Sadly, the pre-conceived notion held by the Apostles from their Jewish upbringing, that when the Messiah came the present age would end and the new age would begin, was the main thing that kept them from understanding what Jesus had been clearly telling them for months about his death and resurrection. That teaching did not fit with what they had been taught, and so they did not understand it. Similarly, they could not grasp that Jesus would go away into heaven without ushering in the Messianic Age. They had been taught since they were children that when the Messiah came he would bring in the Messianic Age, but that erroneous teaching was why, at the Last Supper, they did not understand what Jesus was talking about when he told them he was going to the Father (John 14-16).
Jesus did not try to directly correct the Apostles misunderstanding about his parousia. W. C. Allen correctly observes that Jesus “overlooks the fact that the disciples, according to the Gospel narrative, did not have the requisite understanding of the future for a question about Christ’s coming” (International Critical Commentary). Instead, he answered the Apostles’ question in a straightforward way, realizing that they would later be able to remember and understand those things that they did not understand right then. After Jesus’ ascension into heaven, the nature of his parousia became clear, just as what Jesus had said about his death and resurrection became clear after his resurrection. Hindsight is always 20-20, especially if we remember that people told us beforehand what would happen.
The book of Acts gives us more proof that the Apostles did not understand about Jesus ascending to heaven until when it occurred. In the days between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, the disciples asked him, “Lord, is it at this time you are going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Their question was logical because Jesus had just spoken to them about the coming holy spirit (Acts 1:5), and the disciples knew that the Old Testament prophecies connected the giving of the gift of holy spirit with the Messianic Age (cp. Isa. 32:15-18; Joel 2:28-3:17). So when Jesus told them that the gift of holy spirit was going to be poured out, it was natural for them to assume that the Messianic Kingdom was at hand. But for them to think that Jesus could restore the Kingdom to Israel right then meant they did not expect him to go to heaven and spend time there. Had the disciples known that Jesus was going to ascend into heaven and be there for a while, they would have never asked him if he was going to restore the Kingdom to Israel at that time (see commentary on Acts 1:6).
We now shift our focus from the “coming” of Christ to the purpose of the Gospel of Matthew, and study the word parousia from that perspective. Each of the Four Gospels presents a different picture of the Messiah. Matthew shows Jesus as the King, Mark as the servant, Luke as a man, and John as the Son of God (see commentary on Mark 1:1; “the Gospel of Jesus Christ”). In light of that, it is noteworthy that the only Gospel that uses the word parousia is Matthew (Matt. 24:3, 27, 37, 39), the Gospel portraying Christ as a King. In Matthew, the “coming” of Christ is a parousia. In contrast, Jesus’ “coming” in Mark is the word erchomai (#2064 ἔρχομαι), the standard Greek word for coming or going, used over six hundred times in the New Testament. Since Mark portrays Christ as a servant, it makes sense that Mark does not use the word parousia. Similarly, Luke portrays Jesus as a man, a human being, and Luke also uses the word erchomai for Christ’s coming. Kings got a parousia, servants and “men” did not. The Gospel of John, which portrays Jesus as the Son of God, could appropriately use parousia for the coming of Jesus, but does not contain Jesus’ teaching on the end of the age that Matthew, Mark, and Luke, do. So from a study of the Four Gospels and an understanding of the word parousia, we can see that the use of parousia in Matthew supports its specific portrayal of Jesus as the King.
“and the end of the age.” One thing we can see from the Greek text is that the disciples thought of Jesus’ “coming” and the end of the age as one event, not two. Although most translations have something such as, “the sign of your coming and the end of the age,” in the Greek text the sentence has only one definite article (“the”), thus connecting the “coming and end of the age.” We know that when Jesus comes from heaven and fights the Battle of Armageddon (Rev. 19:11-21), he will end this present evil age and start the new Messianic Age. The Apostles did not know anything about the Rapture of the Christian Church, which is part of the Administration of the Sacred Secret, so they did not mention it (see commentary on Ephesians 3:2).