Read the passage here.
When I was a teenager, as many of you probably know, I attended a Pentecostal church. And the group that I grew up with, along with our youth pastor (and his family), were very important in shaping my faith, along with various aspects of my spirituality. However, as I grew older, learned more about God, the bible, church, and theology, I realized that the older me didn’t entirely agree with many of the things I learned as a young person (which isn’t to say that I entirely disagreed either). So I’m not here to tell you that the church that I grew up in was wrong about anything in particular. I suppose I’m merely saying that I learned to think about things differently – and in some cases, better (which is to say merely that I learned to think better than my younger self).
Growing up in that church, among other things, we spent a lot of time talking about the last days, the end times. For whatever reason, we spent a lot of time talking about how we were living in the last days, and that some of us perhaps would not die before Jesus returned. We read books by Frank E. Peretti (This Present Darkness, Piercing the Darkness), we watched A Thief in the Night (this was before the Left Behind series), and we talked about how the rise of the USSR was one of the signs of the end times and how we had to all make sure we didn’t take the sign of the beast.
And we looked at passages like this one and examined current events to make sure we interpreted correctly the signs of the end (for us, particularly, not to determine when the rapture would happen, but that we should know that it was coming soon).
Now I don’t think we were doing anything wrong, per se. There’s nothing wrong with trying to understand God’s will (though, as I hope we will see, I think we missed what was going on with this passage). And there’s nothing wrong with wondering what’s going to happen. And by no means do I want to suggest that we didn’t talk about a lot of other things that are very important to faith and salvation.
But I do think that we probably didn’t get what was really important about this passage.
Our passage today is obviously a long one. And I thought about breaking this up into smaller sections (several smaller sermons) but thought it might be better to discuss the entire passage because of the way it hangs together. Having said that, there’s a lot going on in this passage and it will be impossible to address it sufficiently (I feel like I’ve been saying that a lot lately). We’re going to miss a lot of the important details, but by looking at the entire passage, I hope that we won’t get lost in those details. So, at any rate, I’m only going to point out a few things to be aware of and think about in regards to the text, and then spend some time thinking about what we do with this passage (i.e. how does it inform our efforts at faithful living?).
The first thing that I want to notice is that this entire discussion by Jesus is precipitated by the disciples’ asking, “when will this happen?”
24 Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. 2 “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”
3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”Matthew 24:1-3
So, specifically, the disciples question “when will this happen?” is in response to Jesus’ proclamation of judgment on the temple – the temple being “thrown down.” Now I’m not going to review any of it now, but remember that the last couple of passages that we looked at in Matthew had to do with Jesus’ criticisms of the religious leaders. It seems to me that it’s in that context that we get this prediction of the destruction of the temple – that seems to be the natural flow. This seems to be more explicit in the corresponding passage sin Mark and Luke:
1 As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”
2 “Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”
3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, 4 “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?”Mark 13:1-4
5 Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, 6 “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”
7 “Teacher,” they asked, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?”Luke 21:5-9
The point that I want to make is that in Mark and Luke, it seems to be clear that Jesus is talking (and the disciples are asking) specifically about the tearing down of the temple – for this entire passage. It’s only in Matthew’s account that we get the wording of “the end of the age.”
The reason I bring this up is because, for some interpreters of scripture, it’s not at all clear that in this passage Jesus is talking about what we now know as the second coming. For these interpreters, Jesus is talking specifically about the fall of the temple, and generally about the fall of the temple system. Which is to say that Jesus is speaking about God’s judgement upon the religious system, and the leaders of that system, that was supposed to point people to God’s rule, but instead became about something else.
Now about this, there’s too much about this perspective to go into detail, but in short, the general belief is that if Jesus was speaking about an end-of-time, second-coming, rapture event, it would have made absolutely no sense to the disciples because they would have had no frame of reference to such an idea. Again over-simplifying, the Jewish understanding of kingdom was very much an in-history reign of God’s people as in King David’s time. Furthermore, as we’ve seen, the idea of Jesus’ death was something the disciples did not understand, much less expect – so a second coming would have been very much contrary to their understanding of the Messiah.
So according to this perspective, the idea and theology of Jesus’ second coming is very much a later Christian idea (i.e. Not necessarily radically later – later as in post-death, resurrection, and ascension – i.e. Paul and John).
Therefore, Matthew’s account of the disciples’ question, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” is seen as very much referring to the end of that age – that is, the age that is pre-Messiah, pre-Kingdom; they are not asking, “when is the sign of all ages/the end of time?” they are very much asking the question we see at the beginning of Acts: 6 Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” They have been following Jesus for several years now and are wondering when this Messiah things is finally going to happen.
Now there’s a whole other conversation that needs to be had, but it’s worth noting that at the beginning of Acts (post-crucifixion, post-resurrection) the disciples still have misunderstandings about Jesus’ mission.
So Jesus’ response then, inasmuch as it’s located around the question of the fulfillment of his prediction of the destruction of the temple, has to do with the vindication of his Messiahship, the proof that what he’s been saying is true, the justification of his criticism of the religious leaders.
Now having said all of that, there are other, equally credible and reliable, biblical scholars who very much believe that Jesus is making statements specifically about the end times (and it’s important to note that historically, this seems to be the dominant view). They would agree that Jesus is indeed addressing the question of the destruction of the temple and the accompanying judgment on the nation of Israel. But they argue that Jesus is indeed also making statements about the ultimate end of things.
However, even among those who hold this view, there seems to be an understanding (again, not universally shared) that Jesus is not saying what will literally happen, but making use of apocalyptic imagery to give a picture, not a description. Which is to say, how one “interprets the signs” very much means understanding how apocalyptic literature functions.
Now obviously, a lot could (and should) be said about that imagery that we’re seeing in this passage. We should pay attention to the references to Isaiah and Daniel and the descriptions of the coming of the Son of Man. And I imagine some of you are frustrated that I’m not doing that. But I suppose that’s kind of my point.
As I described, growing up in the church that I did, there was a lot of talk about such things. About the end times, about the signs, and about how we needed to make sure we were on the right side of the fence so we didn’t get left behind. I don’t think that anyone meant any harm (and indeed, people were trying to be faithful), but I feel like what was actually accomplished was taking our eyes off of the why in order to focus on the when.
What I mean is this. The disciple’s question, I think, had to do with when they could expect the elevation of the Messiah (and by extension, probably, his disciples) to his proper place on the throne of Israel, and Israel as the chosen nation of God. What they were concerned about is when they would get all of the things they were waiting for (I said that a little cynically, but you get the point).
Jesus’ response is a little odd. He does address the question, but does it in a bit of a round about way. He talks about signs, omens, and heralds, but he never gives a date. In essence, he says, “I don’t know, and neither do you – so be ready.”
And it’s the be ready, I think, that’s at issue. It’s a be ready that’s set in contrast to those who are not ready. Reading from 24:36-41
36 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; 39 and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.Matthew 24:36-41
When Jesus says “be ready,” he’s talking about a kind of being ready that takes God seriously. The people in Noah’s time did not take God seriously. Genesis 6:5 tells us,
5 The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.Genesis 6:5
This is a people who paid no attention to God, no attention to what was good, and paid no attention to what matters in the Kingdom. The only thing that mattered was themselves.
As a side note, verses 40-41 (Two men will be in a field; one will be taken and the other left…) is often taken to be a reference to rapture. However, the context doesn’t seem to allow it. The people who are taken are taken in the same way that the flood took away the wicked. The taking, due to ignoring God, is actually judgment.
Carrying on, Jesus says:
42 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. 43 But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.Matthew 24:42-44
Jesus says, “keep watch,” or “be ready.” But the force of the warning seems to suggest that knowing what time “the thief” is coming is not true readiness. Perhaps we might think about this as, if you know that someone is coming at 11:00, you only have to start getting ready at 10 (or whatever). But if you don’t know, then you have to remain ready.
However, let’s look at the closing verses for today. They say:
45 “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? 46 It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. 47 Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. 48 But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time,’ 49 and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. 50 The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. 51 He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.Matthew 24:45-51
Now thinking about the passages we’ve read over the past several weeks, it’s hard to read this and not think about the faithful and wise servant in contrast with the servant (servants) who is not faithful and wise. Surely Jesus wants his disciples to be faithful and wise as they continue to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom in Jesus Christ. And this is particularly the case because the servants who had been in charge prior to Jesus’ arrival (that is, the religious leaders) had not been faithful and wise.
They had waited many years for the arrival of the Messiah, the restoration of the kingdom. But in those years of waiting, they did not remain faithful. The master had stayed away a long time, and they began to beat the other servants, and to eat and drink with drunkards.
I suspect that Jesus was very much warning his disciples to not fall victim to the same trap that the religious leaders fell into.
So, as is often the case, the disciples’ original question was, I think, the wrong question – it’s not what Jesus wanted them to pay attention to.
As a young person, whatever the intention was (which, again, I think was good), I spent a considerable amount of time and energy in fear and worry. I was afraid that God would come and I wouldn’t have been good enough. I worried that the last thing that I did before God came would be so terrible that it would disqualify me from heaven. I was so concerned with the “what’s next,” that I don’t know that I ever got around to living.
Whether Jesus is telling his disciples, “this is what’s going to happen in your immediate future,” or whether he’s telling them what’s going to happen in the future of the church, his concern seems to be that the faithful remain faithful. We don’t know when Jesus is going to come again. We don’t know what God has planned for us. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring or even if we will get a tomorrow. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us. So, let us seek to be faithful. Let us seek to take hold of the life that Christ gives us; to live fully the true life that Christ has given us. Let us be ready because Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again.