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Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Gospel
MATTHEW 24:23-31
23 Then if any man shall say unto you, Lo, here is Christ, or there; believe it not. 24 For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect. 25 Behold, I have told you before. 26 Wherefore if they shall say unto you, Behold, he is in the desert; go not forth: behold, he is in the secret chambers; believe it not. 27 For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. 28 For wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together. 29 Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken: 30 And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. 31 And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.  

The disciples had asked concerning the times, When shall these things be? Christ gives them no answer to that, after what number of days and years his prediction should be accomplished, for it is not for us to know the times (Acts i. 7); but they had asked, What shall be the sign? That question he answers fully, for we are concerned to understand the signs of the times, ch. xvi. 3. Now the prophecy primarily respects the events near at hand--the destruction of Jerusalem, the period of the Jewish church and state, the calling of the Gentiles, and the setting up of Christ's kingdom in the world; but as the prophecies of the Old Testament, which have an immediate reference to the affairs of the Jews and the revolutions of their state, under the figure of them do certainly look further, to the gospel church and the kingdom of the Messiah, and are so expounded in the New Testament, and such expressions are found in those predictions as are peculiar thereto and not applicable otherwise; so this prophecy, under the type of Jerusalem's destruction, looks as far forward as the general judgment; and, as is usual in prophecies, some passages are most applicable to the type, and others to the antitype; and toward the close, as usual, it points more particularly to the latter. It is observable, that what Christ here saith to his disciples tends more to engage their caution than to satisfy their curiosity; more to prepare them for the events that should happen than to give them a distinct idea of the events themselves. This is that good understanding of the time which we should all covet, thence to infer what Israel ought to do: and so this prophecy is of standing lasting use to the church, and will be so to the end of time; for the thing that hath been, is that which shall be (Eccl. i. 5, 6, 7, 9), and the series, connection, and presages, of events, are much the same still that they were then; so that upon the prophecy of this chapter, pointing at that event, moral prognostications may be made, and such constructions of the signs of the times as the wise man's heart will know how to improve.... 

[1.] We must not believe those who say, Lo, here is Christ; or, Lo, he is there, v. 23. We believe that the true Christ is at the right hand of God, and that his spiritual presence is where two or three are gathered together in his name; believe not those therefore who would draw you off from a Christ in heaven, by telling you he is any where on earth; or draw you off from the catholic church on earth, by telling you he is here, or he is there; believe it not. Note, There is not a greater enemy to true faith than vain credulity. The simple believeth every word, and runs after every cry. Memneso apistein--Beware of believing. 

[2.] We must not go forth after those that say, He is in the desert, or, He is in the secret chambers, v. 26. We must not hearken to every empiric and pretender, nor follow every one that puts up the finger to point us to a new Christ, and a new gospel; "Go not forth, for if you do, you are in danger of being taken by them; therefore keep out of harm's way, be not carried about with every wind; many a man's vain curiosity to go forth hath led him into a fatal apostasy; your strength at such a time is to sit still, to have the heart established with grace."  ....

And now comes in the repeated caution, which was opened before, to take heed of being ensnared by false Christs, and false prophets; (v. 23, &c.), who would promise them deliverance, as the lying prophets in Jeremiah's time (Jer. xiv. 13; xxiii. 16, 17; xxvii. 16; xxviii. 2), but would delude them. Times of great trouble are times of great temptation, and therefore we have need to double our guard then. If they shall say, Here is a Christ, or there is one, that shall deliver us from the Romans, do not heed them, it is all but talk; such a deliverance is not to be expected, and therefore not such a deliverer. 

VII. He foretels the sudden spreading of the gospel in the world, about the time of these great events (v. 27, 28); As the lightning comes out of the east, so shall the coming of the Son of man be. It comes in here as an antidote against the poison of those seducers, that said, Lo, here is Christ, or, Lo, he is there; compare Luke xvii. 23, 24. Hearken not to them, for the coming of the Son of man will be as the lightning. 

1. It seems primarily to be meant of his coming to set up his spiritual kingdom in the world; where the gospel came in its light and power, there the Son of man came, and in a way quite contrary to the fashion of the seducers and false Christs, who came creeping in the desert, or the secret chambers (2 Tim. iii. 6); whereas Christ comes not with such a spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind. The gospel would be remarkable for two things. 
(1.) Its swift spreading; it shall fly as the lightning; so shall the gospel be preached and propagated. The gospel is light (John iii. 19); and it is not in this as the lightning, that it is a sudden flash, and away, for it is sun-light, and day-light; but it is as lightning in these respects: 
[1.] It is light from heaven, as the lightning. It is God, and not man, that sends the lightnings, and summons them, that they may go, and say, Here we are, Job xxxviii. 35. It is God that directs it (Job xxxvii. 3); to man it is one of nature's miracles, above his power to effect, and of nature's mysteries, above his skill to account for: but it is from above; his lightnings enlightened the world, Ps. xcvii. 4. 
[2.] It is visible and conspicuous as the lightning. The seducers carried on their depths of Satan in the desert and the secret chambers, shunning the light; heretics were called lucifugæ--light-shunners. But truth seeks no corners, however it may sometimes be forced into them, as the woman in the wilderness, though clothed with the sun, Rev. xii. 1, 6. Christ preached his gospel openly (John xviii. 20), and his apostles on the housetop (ch. x. 27), not in a corner, Acts xxvi. 26. See Ps. xcviii. 2. 
[3.] It was sudden and surprising to the world as the lightning; the Jews indeed had predictions of it, but to the Gentiles it was altogether unlooked for, and came upon them with unaccountable energy, or ever they were aware. It was light out of darkness, ch. iv. 16; 2 Cor. iv. 6. We read of the discomfiting of armies by lightning, 2 Sam. xxii. 15; Ps. cxliv. 6. The powers of darkness were dispersed and vanquished by the gospel lightning. 
[4.] It spread far and wide, and that quickly and irresistibly, like the lightning, which comes, suppose, out of the east (Christ is said to ascend from the east, Rev. vii. 2; Isa. xli. 2), and lighteneth to the west. The propagating of Christianity to so many distant countries, of divers languages, by such unlikely instruments, destitute of all secular advantages, and in the face of so much opposition, and this in so short a time, was one of the greatest miracles that was ever wrought for the confirmation of it; here was Christ upon his white horse, denoting speed as well as strength, and going on conquering and to conquer, Rev. vi. 2. Gospel light rose with the sun, and went with the same, so that the beams of it reached to the ends of the earth, Rom. x. 18. Compare with Ps. xix. 3, 4. Though it was fought against, it could never be cooped up in a desert, or in a secret place, as the seducers were; but by this, according to Gamaliel's rule, proved itself to be of God, that it could not be overthrown, Acts v. 38, 39. Christ speaks of shining into the west, because it spread most effectually into those countries which lay west from Jerusalem, as Mr. Herbert observes in his Church-militant. How soon did the gospel lightning reach this island of Great Britain! Tertullian, who wrote in the second century, takes notice of it, Britannorum in accessa Romanis loca, Christo tamen subdita--The fastnesses of Britain, though inaccessible to the Romans, were occupied by Jesus Christ. This was the Lord's doing. 
(2.) Another thing remarkable concerning the gospel, was, its strange success in those places to which is was spread; it gathered in multitudes, not by external compulsion, but as it were by such a natural instinct and inclination, as brings the birds of prey to their prey; for wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together (v. 28), where Christ is preached, souls will be gathered in to him. The lifting up of Christ from the earth, that is, the preaching of Christ crucified, which, one would think, should drive all men from him, will draw all men to him (John xii. 32), according to Jacob's prophecy, that to him shall the gathering of the people be, Gen. xlix. 10. See Isa. lx. 8. The eagles will be where the carcase is, for it is food for them, it is a feast for them; where the slain are, there is she, Job xxxix. 30. Eagles are said to have a strange sagacity and quickness of scent to find out the prey, and they fly swiftly to it, Job ix. 26. So those whose spirits God shall stir up, will be effectually drawn to Jesus Christ, to feed upon him; whither should the eagle go but to the prey? Whither should the soul go but to Jesus Christ, who has the words of eternal life? The eagles will distinguish what is proper for them from that which is not; so those who have spiritual senses exercised, will know the voice of the good Shepherd from that of a thief and a robber. Saints will be where the true Christ is, not the false Christs. This is applicable to the desires that are wrought in every gracious soul after Christ, and communion with him. Where he is in his ordinances, there will his servants choose to be. A living principle of grace is a kind of natural instinct in all the saints, drawing them to Christ to live upon him. 

2. Some understand these verses of the coming of the Son of man to destroy Jerusalem, Mal. iii. 1, 2, 5. So much was there of an extraordinary display of divine power and justice in that event, that it is called the coming of Christ. 
Now here are two things intimated concerning it. 
(1.) That to the most it would be as unexpected as a flash of lightning, which indeed gives warning of the clap of thunder which follows, but is itself surprising. The seducers say, Lo, here is Christ to deliver us; or there is one, a creature of their own fancies; but ere they are aware, the wrath of the Lamb, the true Christ, will arrest them, and they shall not escape. 
(2.) That it might be as justly expected as that the eagle should fly to the carcases; though they put far from them the evil day, yet the desolation will come as certainly as the birds of prey to a dead carcase, that lies exposed in the open field. [1.] The Jews were so corrupt and degenerate, so vile and vicious, that they were become a carcase, obnoxious to the righteous judgment of God; they were also so factious and seditious, and every way so provoking to the Romans, that they had made themselves obnoxious to their resentments, and an inviting prey to them. [2.] The Romans were as an eagle, and the ensign of their armies was an eagle. The army of the Chaldeans is said to fly as the eagle that hasteth to eat, Hab. i. 8. The ruin of the New-Testament Babylon is represented by a call to the birds of prey to come and feast upon the slain, Rev. xix. 17, 18. Notorious malefactors have their eyes eaten out by the young eagles (Prov. xxx. 17); the Jews were hung up in chains, Jer. vii. 33; xvi. 4. [3.] The Jews can no more preserve themselves from the Romans than the carcase can secure itself from the eagles. [4.] The destruction shall find out the Jews wherever they are, as the eagle scents the prey. Note, When a people do by their sin make themselves carcases, putrid and loathsome, nothing can be expected but that God should send eagles among them, to devour and destroy them. 

3. It is very applicable to the day of judgment, the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in that day, and our gathering together unto him, 2 Thess. ii. 1. Now see here, 
(1.) How he shall come; as the lightning, The time was now at hand, when he should depart out of the world, to go to the Father. Therefore those that enquire after Christ must not go into the desert or the secret place, nor listen to every one that will put up the finger to invite them to a sight of Christ; but let them look upward, for the heavens must contain him, and thence we look for the Saviour (Phil. iii. 20); he shall come in the clouds, as the lightning doth, and every eye shall see him, as they say it is natural for all living creatures to turn their faces towards the lightning, Rev. i. 7. Christ will appear to all the world, from one end of heaven to the other; nor shall any thing be hid from the light and heat of that day. 
(2.) How the saints shall be gathered to him; as the eagles are to the carcase by natural instinct, and with the greatest swiftness and alacrity imaginable. Saints, when they shall be fetched to glory, will be carried as on eagles' wings (Exod. xix. 4), as on angels' wings. They shall mount up with wings, like eagles, and like them renew their youth. 

VIII. He foretels his second coming at the end of time, v. 29-31. The sun shall be darkened, &c
1. Some think this is to be understood only of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish nation; the darkening of the sun, moon, and stars, denotes the eclipse of the glory of that state, its convulsions, and the general confusion that attended that desolation. Great slaughter and devastation are in the Old Testament thus set forth (as Isa. xiii. 10; xxxiv. 4; Ezek. xxxii. 7; Joel ii. 31); or by the sun, moon, and stars, may be meant the temple, Jerusalem, and the cities of Judah, which should all come to ruin. The sign of the Son of man (v. 30) means a signal appearance of the power and justice of the Lord Jesus in it, avenging his own blood on them that imprecated the guilt of it upon themselves and their children; and the gathering of his elect (v. 31) signifies the delivering of a remnant from this sin and ruin. 

2. It seems rather to refer to Christ's second coming. The destruction of the particular enemies of the church was typical of the complete conquest of them all; and therefore what will be done really at the great day, may be applied metaphorically to those destructions: but still we must attend to the principal scope of them; and while we are all agreed to expect Christ's second coming, what need is there to put such strained constructions as some do, upon these verses, which speak of it so clearly, and so agreeably to other scriptures, especially when Christ is here answering an enquiry concerning his coming at the end of the world, which Christ was never shy of speaking of to his disciples? 

The only objection against this, is, that it is said to be immediately after the tribulation of those days; but as to that, (1.) It is usual in the prophetical style to speak of things great and certain as near and just at hand, only to express the greatness and certainty of them. Enoch spoke of Christ's second coming as within ken, Behold, the Lord cometh, Jude 14. (2.) A thousand years are in God's sight but as one day, 2 Pet. iii. 8. It is there urged, with reference to this very thing, and so it might be said to be immediately after. The tribulation of those days includes not only the destruction of Jerusalem, but all the other tribulations which the church must pass through; not only its share in the calamities of the nations, but the tribulations peculiar to itself; while the nations are torn with wars, and the church with schisms, delusions, and persecutions, we cannot say that the tribulation of those days is over; the whole state of the church on earth is militant, we must count upon that; but when the church's tribulation is over, her warfare accomplished, and what is behind of the sufferings of Christ filled up, then look for the end. 

Now concerning Christ's second coming, it is here foretold, 
[1.] That there shall be then a great and amazing change of the creatures, and particularly the heavenly bodies (v. 29). The sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light. The moon shines with a borrowed light, and therefore if the sun, from whom she borrows her light, is turned into darkness, she must fail of course, and become bankrupt. The stars shall fall; they shall lose their light, and disappear, and be as if they were fallen; and the powers of heaven shall be shaken. This intimates, 

First, That there shall be a great change, in order to the making of all things new. Then shall be the restitution of all things, when the heavens shall not be cast away as a rag, but changed as a vesture, to be worn in a better fashion, Ps. cii. 26. They shall pass away with a great noise, that there may be new heavens, 2 Pet. iii. 10-13. 

Secondly, It shall be a visible change, and such as all the world must take notice of; for such the darkening of the sun and moon cannot but be: and it would be an amazing change; for the heavenly bodies are not so liable to alteration as the creatures of this lower world are. The days of heaven, and the continuance of the sun and moon, are used to express that which is lasting and unchangeable (As Ps. lxxxix. 29; xxxvi. 37); yet they shall thus be shaken. 

Thirdly, It shall be a universal change. If the sun be turned into darkness, and the powers of heaven be shaken, the earth cannot but be turned into a dungeon, and its foundation made to tremble. Howl, fir trees, if the cedars be shaken. When the stars of heaven drop, no marvel if the everlasting mountains melt, and the perpetual hills bow. Nature shall sustain a general shock and convulsion, which yet shall be no hindrance to the joy and rejoicing of heaven and earth before the Lord, when he cometh to judge the world (Ps. xcvi. 11, 13); they shall as it were glory in the tribulation. 

Fourthly, The darkening of the sun, moon, and stars, which were made to rule over the day, and over the night (which is the first dominion we find of any creature, Gen. i. 16-18), signifies the putting down of all rule, authority, and power (even that which seems of the greatest antiquity and usefulness), that the kingdom may be delivered up to God, even the Father, and he may be All in all, 1 Cor. xv. 24, 28. The sun was darkened at the death of Christ, for then was in one sense the judgment of this world (John xii. 31), an indication of what would be at the general judgment. 

Fifthly, The glorious appearance of our Lord Jesus, who will then show himself as the Brightness of his Father's glory, and the express Image of his person, will darken the sun and moon, as a candle is darkened in the beams of the noon-day sun; they will have no glory, by reason of the glory that excelleth, 2 Cor. iii. 10. Then the sun shall be ashamed, and the moon confounded, when God shall appear, Isa. xxiv. 23. 

Sixthly, The sun and moon shall be then darkened, because there will be no more occasion for them. To sinners, that choose their portion in this life, all comfort will be eternally denied; as they shall not have a drop of water, so not a ray of light. Now God causeth his sun to rise on the earth, but then Interdico tib sole et luna--I forbid thee the light of the sun and the moon. Darkness must be their portion. To the saints that had their treasure above, such light of joy and comfort will be given as shall supersede that of the sun and moon, and render it useless. What need is there of vessels of light, when we come to the Fountain and Father of light? See Isa. lx. 19; Rev. xxii. 5. 

[2.] That then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven (v. 30), the Son of man himself, as it follows here, They shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds. At his first coming, he was set for a Sign that should be spoken against (Luke ii. 34), but at his second coming, a sign that should be admired. Ezekiel was a son of man set for a sign, Ezek. xii. 6. Some make this a prediction of the harbingers and forerunners of his coming, giving notice of his approach; a light shining before him, and the fire devouring (Ps. l. 3; 1 Kings xix. 11, 12), the beams coming out of his hand, where had long been the hiding of his power, Hab. iii. 4. It is a groundless conceit of some of the ancients, that this sign of the Son of man, will be the sign of the cross displayed as a banner. It will certainly be such a clear convincing sign as will dash infidelity quite out of countenance, and fill their faces with shame, who said, Where is the promise of his coming? 

[3.] That then all the tribes of the earth shall mourn, v. 30. See Rev. i. 7. All the kindreds of the earth shall then wail because of him; some of all the tribes and kindreds of the earth shall mourn; for the greater part will tremble at his approach, while the chosen remnant, one of a family and two of a tribe, shall lift up their heads with joy, knowing that their redemption draws nigh, and their Redeemer. Note, Sooner or later, all sinners will be mourners; penitent sinners look to Christ, and mourn after a godly sort; and they who sow in those tears, shall shortly reap in joy; impenitent sinners shall look unto him whom they have pierced, and, though they laugh now, shall mourn and weep after a devilish sort, in endless horror and despair. 

[4.] That then they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. Note, First, The judgment of the great day will be committed to the Son of man, both in pursuance and in recompence of his great undertaking for us as Mediator, John v. 22, 27. Secondly, The Son of man will at that day come in the clouds of heaven. Much of the sensible intercourse between heaven and earth is by the clouds; they are betwixt them, as it were, the medium participationis--the medium of participation, drawn by heaven from the earth, distilled by heaven upon the earth. Christ went to heaven in a cloud, and will in like manner come again, Acts i. 9, 11. Behold, he cometh in the clouds, Rev. i. 7. A cloud will be the Judge's chariot (Ps. civ. 3), his robe (Rev. x. 1), his pavilion (Ps. xviii. 11), his throne, Rev. xiv. 14. When the world was destroyed by water, the judgment came in the clouds of heaven, for the windows of heaven were opened; so shall it be when it shall be destroyed by fire. Christ went before Israel in a cloud, which had a bright side and a dark side; so will the cloud have in which Christ will come at the great day, it will bring both comfort and terror. Thirdly, He will come with power and great glory: his first coming was in weakness and great meanness (2 Cor. xiii. 4); but his second coming will be with power and glory, agreeable both to the dignity of his person and to the purposes of his coming. Fourthly, He will be seen with bodily eyes in his coming: therefore the Son of man will be the Judge, that he may be seen, that sinners thereby may be the more confounded, who shall see him as Balaam did, but not nigh (Num. xxiv. 17), see him, but not as theirs. It added to the torment of that damned sinner, that he saw Abraham afar off. "Is this he whom we have slighted, and rejected, and rebelled against; whom we have crucified to ourselves afresh; who might have been our Saviour, but is our Judge, and will be our enemy for ever?" The Desire of all nations will then be their dread. 

[5.] That he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, v. 31. Note, First, The angels shall be attendants upon Christ at his second coming; they are called his angels, which proves him to be God, and Lord of the angels; they shall be obliged to wait upon him. Secondly, These attendants shall be employed by him as officers of the court in the judgment of that day; they are now ministering spirits sent forth by him (Heb. i. 14), and will be so then. Thirdly, Their ministration will be ushered in with a great sound of a trumpet, to awaken and alarm a sleeping world. This trumpet is spoken of, 1 Cor. xv. 52, and 1 Thess. iv. 16. At the giving of the law on mount Sinai, the sound of the trumpet was remarkably terrible (Exod. xix. 13, 16); but much more will it be so in the great day. By the law, trumpets were to be sounded for the calling of assemblies (Num. x. 2), in praising God (Ps. lxxxi. 3), in offering sacrifices (Num. x. 10), and in proclaiming the year of jubilee, Lev. xxv. 9. Very fitly therefore shall there be the sound of a trumpet at the last day, when the general assembly shall be called, when the praises of God shall be gloriously celebrated, when sinners shall fall as sacrifices to divine justice, and when the saints shall enter upon their eternal jubilee. 

[6.] That they shall gather together his elect from the four winds. Note, At the second coming of Jesus Christ, there will be a general meeting of all the saints. First, The elect only will be gathered, the chosen remnant, who are but few in comparison with the many that are only called. This is the foundation of the saints' eternal happiness, that they are God's elect. The gifts of love to eternity follow the thought of love from eternity; and the Lord knows them that are his. Secondly, The angels shall be employed to bring them together, as Christ's servants, and as the saints' friends; we have the commission given them, Ps. l. 5. Gather my saints together unto me; nay, it will be said to them, Habetis fratres--These are your brethren; for the elect will then be equal to the angels, Luke xx. 36. Thirdly, They shall be gathered from one end of heaven to the other; the elect of God are scattered abroad (John xi. 52), there are some in all places, in all nations (Rev. vii. 9); but when that great gathering day comes, there shall not one of them be missing; distance of place shall keep none out of heaven, if distance of affection do not. Undique ad cúlos tantundem est viæ--Heaven is equally accessible from every place. See ch. viii. 11; Isa. xliii. 6; xlix. 12.