Today is Mission Sunday – when we think about getting the gospel out, both overseas and at home – and both though strengthening and planting churches and through Christian service. But why – why be concerned to spend time, energy and money on Mission? Let me give you three answers. The first answer is that Christians believe the apostolic teaching about Jesus Christ that:
“Salvation is found in no-one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4.12)
The second answer is that Christians want to obey Jesus’ Great Commission to...
“... go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28.19-20)
And the third answer is that Christians are convinced of the truth of what they preach and teach; and they want the reality and truth of God to be acknowledged by all men and women – the truth that almighty God really did come in the flesh 2000 years ago – the almighty God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And why are they convinced of this truth? Listen to Paul on Jesus Christ in Romans 1.4:
“… through the Spirit of holiness [he] was declared with power to be the Son of God, by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.”
The resurrection is so central to establishing the truth of the Christian faith. At the time of the French Revolution the French Diplomat, Talleyrand, was in conversation with the French philosopher, M. Lepeaux. M. Lepeaux had invented a new religion and so asked Talleyrand to suggest a revolutionary way to spread this new religion. Without hesitation Talleyrand replied, “I shall recommend that you have yourself crucified and on the third day rise from the dead.”
So it was Jesus and the Resurrection that the early apostles were preaching on their missionary journeys around the Mediterranean and then further afield. But what did the non-believers – the “unchurched” of the first century – notice about the new converts that resulted? What did they want to question them about? According to the apostle Peter, it wasn't their faith, nor was it their love for one another. It was their “hope”:
“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (1 Peter 3.15)
The Christian religion was known as a religion of “hope”. Paul can write of the entire non-believing world as not without faith, but “without hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2.12). And why was this? Why did such a strong hope shine out of these early Christians? Answer: they looked forward to Jesus’ coming again. Jesus had taught them that after his resurrection he would depart, but only for a period. He would one day return. And we have some of that teaching in our passage for this morning from Matthew 24.
But by way of introduction let me just point out a contrast between those New Testament days and today. The hope of Christ’s return thrilled New Testament Christians. It was a fundamental of the faith. There are over 300 references to it in the New Testament documents – on average one every thirteen verses. A good example of this hope is the early believers at Thessalonica. This is how, not Paul, but other people described them. They...
“... turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead – Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.” (1 Thessalonians 1.9-10)
But to many modern Christians, Christ’s return from heaven is not thrilling but embarrassing. Why is this? There have always been problems – hence Jesus’ teaching as we shall see. But there seems to be one special problem today. It is not the use of imagery and symbolism to describe Christ’s return. People can cope with that. No! The problem for many is the legacy of Marxism which is still potent. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 only saw the end of Marxist economics. Sadly, its deeper philosophical materialism lives on. In fact it is the axiomatic faith of so many in the West and now not only on the left but also on the right. It is the belief that economics determines everything and that everything can be explained in terms of economic relations, not least religion. As Marx famously said:
“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.”
The oppressed, of course, need to be helped. But Marxism has increased oppression not helped relieve it; and so Marxism has now been thoroughly discredited. However, timid Christians are still nervous of post-Marxist mockery. They are nervous of their hope being called “pie in the sky when you die”. They worry about their hope of heaven being seen as an alternative to ending the evils of this life. They foolishly forget that someone like Lord Shaftesbury lived in daily expectancy of the Lord’s return. But this led not to a passive pietism but his political activism. He was one of the greatest 19th humanitarian reformers, getting better treatment for the mentally-ill, better factory, mill and colliery conditions and less child labour. So after studying Jesus' teaching in this passage, I hope you will all consign Marx’ teaching that relates to Jesus’ Second Coming to “the dustbin of history” (to use Trotsky’s phrase). Then be confident yourselves about Christ’s Second Coming. So let’s now look at Matthew 24.36-51 under three headings: first, THE FACTS; secondly, THE COMMAND; and thirdly, THE CHOICE.
First, THE FACTS (verses 36-41)
Look at verse 36:
“No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
“That day”, of course, is in contrast to “all these things” of verse 34. So look back to verse 34 where Jesus says:
“I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.”
“All these things” refers to the tragic and terrible things Jesus has been saying would take place between his first and second comings – during this period that we now live in. An archetypal act of tragedy and terror was the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in AD 70 by the Romans. Jesus was predicting that destruction, as we saw last week. And there would have been people hearing this teaching of Jesus in the AD 30s who would have lived (also as Jesus predicted) to see this destruction. But that event along with other “wars and rumours of wars” and “famines and earthquakes in various places”, as well as the preaching of the gospel world wide, were and are simply (Matthew 24.8) “the beginning of birth-pains”. The disciples, however, also wanted to know about the end of those “birth pains” at the coming again of Jesus. So “that day” is referring to Jesus’ Second Coming and “the end of the age” (verse 3b).
What, then, are the facts to underline. There are at least four. And the first fact is, very simply, that there is a “day”. This world is not going on for ever. Time is not cyclical (as some philosophies and religions have it) but linear. The Bible is clear – there was a beginning and there will be an end, when Christ comes again. The dead will be raised. The living will be changed. And there will be a wonderful renewal of cosmic proportions. There will be no more pain or tears or death. Think of all the best in this life. Heaven and this new age will be infinitely better. That is the great Christian hope. By contrast non believers are hope-less.
The famous 20th century philosopher, Bertrand Russell in his book Why I am not a Christian attacks Jesus’ teaching about the end and his Second Coming. But what was the result of Russell’s rejection of Jesus Christ? Answer: hopelessness. Russell is at least honest in his autobiography where he writes,
“There is darkness without and when I die there will be darkness within. There is no splendour, no vastness anywhere; only triviality for the moment, and then nothing.”
What a contrast with millions of Christians who die, confident of Christ’s return and an eternal future with him. So the first fact is that Jesus will come again.
The second fact is that no one knows when he will come again – not even the angels in heaven. Nor, says Jesus, does he know when. It is only the Father. So never listen to any religious fanatic who tells you that they do know or have some idea.
The third fact, and this is so important, is that Christ’s return will be totally unexpected. It will seem a great surprise. Look at verses 37-39:
“As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 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; 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.”
The world will be going on as normal. Jesus doesn’t say that people in Noah’s day were murdering, stealing and being sexually immoral. He speaks about ordinary and moral activities – eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage. But people were totally taken up with these things – good though these were in themselves. They were totally ignoring the fact that God was about to judge the world. And isn't that how it is today? Isn't that how it is with many Christians – perhaps even with some here this morning? So the simple question is this: do you believe Jesus Christ, when he says he is coming again? Because he doesn't tell us the date, it could be any time. It could be very soon – on the other hand it may not be. But because it might be soon, we need to be ready.
The fourth fact is that Jesus’ Second Coming will not only result in surprise, it will also result in a fearful separation. Look at verses 40-41:
“Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.”
It is going to be a time of judgement. Do you believe that? We say in the Creed,
“He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”
Jesus and the Bible are so clear about God’s judgement. That is another reason for Mission – to introduce people to Jesus Christ who, as we heard earlier,
“… rescues us from the coming wrath.” (1 Thessalonians 1.10)
So, there is an end with Jesus’ coming again; we don’t know when; it will be unexpected; and there will be a separation.
... secondly, to THE COMMAND (verses 42-44)
Look at verse 42:
“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.”
Jesus and the Bible are so clear also on the need for “watchfulness”. And Jesus is saying here, in effect, that if you are not watchful, you could be like a man whose house gets broken into while he is asleep. Look at verses 43-44:
“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. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”
As many of us know, a lack of watchfulness allowing break-ins can be disastrous in this life. But a lack of watchfulness is infinitely more awful in regard to eternal life, as we shall see. So as you prepare in this life to be ready for a burglar by acquiring an alarm system, so you must prepare to be ready for Christ's coming, “at an hour when you do not expect him.” But how – how do you prepare? The answer is in the next verses and...
Thirdly and finally, THE CHOICE (verses 45-51)
Look at verses 45-51:
“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? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. I tell you the truth, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time,’ and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. 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. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
There is a choice before everyone. We are all called to be God’s servants. But you can go one of two ways. One of these ways is being a “faithful and wise servant”. And that means four things.
One, it means you are “faithful” – you trust in Christ for forgiveness and new life; but you also use your mind – you are wise. You consciously remind yourself that God knows best; he has good plans for you and others; his will is perfect. So you trust and obey. You seek to do what God wants and live as he intends you to live.
But, two, that obedience means you live not just for yourself, but also for others. The faithful and wise servant served others – he gave the other servants “their food at the proper time”.
So, three, being “prepared” does not mean, hour after hour, meditating on the Lord’s return and doing nothing. No! True, the Lord’s return is to be in the back of you mind. But the proper way of being prepared in the present is to obey God in all he calls you to be doing in this life – at home, at work and at play.
And, four, being like a faithful and wise servant means true happiness in life and eternity. Verse 46 – “it will be good” – is literally “that servant will be blessed or happy”. In eternity you will, indeed, be rewarded – verse 47:
“I tell you the truth, he will put him in charge of all his possessions.”
That is a faithful and wise servant. But there is an alternative – going the way of a “wicked” servant; and that means three things.
One, such a servant takes the delay in his Master’s return as equivalent to the certainty that he will not return soon.
So, two, it means far from serving others, you act selfishly and do what suits you. A wicked servant attacks his Master’s servants for whom he is responsible (he “begins to beat his fellow servants”) and he is immoral (he begins “to eat and drink with drunkards”).
And, three, being a wicked servant means a fearful and terrible future. Look at verses 50-51:
“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. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
The reference to hypocrites suggests a wicked servant appears as “faithful and wise” when the master is present, but the reality is otherwise. Yes, this is hell. The language of Jesus and the Bible on hell may be symbolic. A lake of fire would normally cancel out outer darkness. But such language sufficiently conveys the total distress and misery of what you are being warned about. It is similar with the descriptions here. Like heaven under the influence of Marx, hell is no longer fashionable. But if it is real, to ignore it is utter folly. That God allows you to choose hell, proves he respects human freedom and so should you. That God warns you of hell so that you don’t choose it, proves he loves you as does the cross where Jesus died to bear your guilt and free you from hell.
And that was the early missionary message. The result was converts who, to repeat again,
“… turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead – Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.” (1 Thessalonians 1.9-10)
Who needs to turn to God from 21st century idols, to serve him and to wait, then, for Jesus Christ to return that second time?
How do you turn to God? On one occasion Paul put it like this:
“… if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”(Romans 10.9)