This morning we begin a new sermon series in Matthew’s Gospel, in a chunk of Jesus’ teaching about the end of the world – when Jesus comes again. And that teaching has led to two extremes among Christians. One extreme is to give it the wrong kind of attention. That’s happened when Christians down the ages have tried to predict the exact date when Jesus will come again. And each time they’ve been wrong and the predicted date has come and gone and the whole idea that Jesus will come again has been discredited. The other extreme is to give this teaching little or no attention – or even to be embarrassed by it. Sometimes that’s in reaction to that first extreme – out of an understandable desire to avoid the Bible being discredited by misinterpretations. But sometimes it’s in reaction to the sceptical world around us. Sometimes we avoid this subject in talking to unbelievers, or churches avoid it in preaching, because we’re worried that people will find it unbelievable.
But in this chunk of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus teaches at length about the end of the world and his coming again. Which means we do need to give it good attention – and to remember that the answer to the misuse of any part of the Bible is not its disuse but its right use.
So would you please turn to Matthew 24. The Lord Jesus is just days away from his death and resurrection. He’s in Jerusalem; he’s just had his final showdown with the religious leaders of Israel, who’ve rejected him and are plotting his death. And he walks away from them in judgement. So look at chapter 24 verses 1 to 3:
“Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. ‘Do you see all these things?’ he asked. ‘I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.’ [that is, as a sign of judgement on their rejection of Jesus]
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?’ ”
I’ve got four headings to help us through Jesus’ answer:
Firstly, OUR CONCERN FOR A TIME-TABLE (verses 4-8)
Look again at the disciples’ question in verse 3: “When will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” Now have a look at Picture 1:
From left to right, at the time of saying these things, the Lord Jesus knows he is about to die on the cross, rise from the dead (that’s the big ‘R’ in Picture 1) and return to be at his Father’s side on the throne of heaven (represented in Picture 1 by the crown with the ‘J’ in it). However, his disciples, in their minds, have lumped together the destruction of the temple, Jesus’ second coming and the end of this present age. Their question gives the impression that they think that’s all going to happen at the same time, and they’re basically asking for a time-table (when will that all happen?) and a sign (what ‘significant event’ will take place just beforehand, to let us know that this is all about to happen?)
Look on to verse 4 to see how Jesus answers that question:
“Jesus answered: ‘Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, “I am the Christ” and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.’ ” (verses 4-8)
Now at first glance, Jesus doesn’t seem to answer their question. He certainly doesn’t give them a timetable. He doesn’t say, ‘Well, the destruction of the temple will happen in the year AD70 (which is when it did) – and, actually, my second coming will be a much longer time after that – thousands of years, in fact.’ What he says is: don’t be deceived. In verses 4 and 5, he says we can be deceived by people. And he says if we encounter any teaching or cult that claims that its leader is Christ come again, we’re not even to give a moment’s thought as to whether it might be true. It’s not. And we’re to disbelieve it and warn others off it. But in our context, maybe the way we’re more likely to be deceived is in verses 6-8 where Jesus says we can be deceived by trying to interpret events. And I’ve certainly heard believers in our own church family say things like this: ‘You know, I was reading a Christian magazine the other day which said that there was now a higher frequency of wars and natural disasters than in any earlier time in history and that therefore... [and this, according to Jesus, is where you’re about to be deceived]... Jesus’ coming will be very soon indeed.’ Even a great Bible scholar like Martin Luther fell into that trap – when he pretty much predicted from current affairs that the second coming was likely to be in the year 1530. Jesus is saying here: don’t get into that game of predicting a timetable. Even if World War Three breaks out and global warming devastates half the planet, all we can say is what verse 8 says: it’s like the beginning of birth-pains. But the ‘labour’ could last a further 1,000, 2,000, 10,000 years before Jesus comes again to bring about the ‘birth’ of the fully established kingdom of God.
But the point is not just that our concern for a time-table can lead to us being deceived. The point is: our concern for a timetable is wrong – because, as we’ll see in Matthew 24 and 25, Jesus tells us about the future not to get us predicting it, but to get us ready for it. And knowing the exact time-table wouldn’t help us in that – in fact it would hinder us. Imagine that God had told us that the Lord Jesus would come again in the year 2009 and that there’d be a sign to confirm that in the form of a total eclipse of the sun in the year 2008. What would we do? Get ready now? Start living seriously for the Lord like never before now? Share the gospel with unbelievers like never before now? And would unbelievers come flocking to sign up for Christianity Explored so as to make up their minds about Jesus now? No, we’d all wait till 2008 to take serious action. Whereas the time God wants us to trust and obey him flat out is now. So when passages like this tempt you to think, ‘Why wasn’t God a little clearer, a little more specific, about these things?’ The answer is because he’s wiser than we are.
So that’s the first point, and it’s a warning: that our concern for a timetable is wrong and unhelpful, and that we shouldn’t be into trying to predict dates – or take any interest in those who do so.
Second, JESUS’ CONCERN FOR OUR PERSEVERANCE (verses 9-14)
Now have a look at Picture 1 again: that’s the picture of the wrong time-table that the disciples had in their minds. But here’s the true picture that Jesus explains in the rest of this chapter, Picture 2:
Jesus teaches in Matthew 24 that the destruction of the temple was going to happen in the lifetime of those first disciples (‘this generation’, as verse 34 puts it). But then in Matthew 25, Jesus says explicitly that he will be ‘a long time in coming’ (25.5). – i.e. that his second coming would be a long time after the destruction of the temple. And Jesus’ concern in verses 9-14 is that we understand the spiritual war that’s going on between his first and second comings, so that we persevere in the middle of it. So look on to Matthew 24.9-14:
“ ‘Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”
Have a look at Picture 2 again - the picture of the whole timescale between Jesus’ first second comings. People have often used D-day and V-day in World War Two to illustrate that. D-day was when the Allies landed on the beaches of Normandy. And the battle they won that day basically won the war and defeated Hitler. But the war wasn’t over until V-day (victory day), when German forces surrendered. And between D-day and V-day lay a lot more fighting – some of it very intense, since an enemy who knows he’s defeated can be the toughest fighter of all. Jesus’ death and resurrection were the equivalent of D-day. That was when the spiritual war for our salvation was won: Satan’s power to keep us hopelessly condemned on his side was defeated. But the war isn’t over yet. Satan and his side won’t be overthrown until Jesus comes again. And in the meantime there’s constant spiritual warfare between Satan’s side and the Lord’s side.
So if we’re on the Lord’s side, how will Satan fight against us, his people? Well, verses 9 and 10 say: by persecution. The world Satan controls will not like what we say or how we live. And it may do anything to us – from poking fun at us, through forcing us out of our jobs (like that Christian judge in the news this week), to killing us. So, persecution. But then, verse 11, infiltration. Satan will get false prophets into the church – in the form of theologians, bishops, vicars, etc – who are not believers and who will tell his lies dressed up in Christian language. Persecution; infiltration; then for verse 12 the best word I could think of was infection: the more immoral the world becomes under Satan’s influence, the more it infects us in ways that it’s very hard even to detect. For example, the materialism all around us infects us, so that it’s becoming harder and harder to detect our own greed – because in our culture’s scale of values, greed isn’t sinful – it’s normal.
And Jesus’ concern is that we understand that we’re in that battle – so that the hardness of the Christian life (and it can get very hard) doesn’t take us by surprise. And his concern is that we know we’re on the winning side – so that we hang on in there, however hard things get, for the time when the war will be over forever.
Then, if verses 9-13 are about what the world will do to believers, verse 14 is a reminder of what we’re to do to the world. We’re not to hate it back, or hit it back, or retreat into a ghetto, or do nothing more than analyse it and criticise it for its sins. We’re to love it. We’re to love people enough to tell them the gospel so that they also can become ready for Jesus’ coming again – by turning to him for forgiveness and a new life.
Third, THE SIGNS THAT FINAL JUDGEMENT AND SALVATION ARE ON THEIR WAY (verses 15-28)
We began with Jesus’ promise that the temple would be destroyed as a sign of judgement on all unbelief and religion that rejects him. And in verse 15 he now focuses on that specific event. We don’t have time to go into every detail, but let’s read on verses 15-21:
“ ‘So when you see standing in the holy place [i.e. the temple] “the abomination that causes desolation”, spoken of through the prophet Daniel – let the reader understand – then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. [This ‘abomination’ was Jesus’ way of talking about a terrible sacrilege of the temple that would be the sign that it was about to be destroyed. We know of several things like that which did happen in the run-up to the time when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in AD70, and one of them was probably what Jesus meant. So Jesus says to believers living in that generation in Judea, when they see that sign:] Let no-one on the roof of his house go down to take anything out of the house. Let no-one in the field go back to get his cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now – and never to be equaled again. [And the Roman war on Jerusalem, and its destruction, were horrific – over a million Jews died.]”
So, for that specific event Jesus did give a timetable and a sign – so that believers could be saved from the judgement that was coming on the people around them. But when you read on to verse 22, it’s not clear exactly what time-period Jesus is talking about:
"If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive [literally ‘no human being would be saved’], but for the sake of the elect [i.e. those God has chosen to bring to faith in Christ] those days will be shortened."
Now that could still be referring just to the fall of Jerusalem. But I think Jesus has now gone back to talking about the whole time-period between his first and second comings. Either way, verse 22 is teaching that in the midst of the judgements that God brings on false religion (like the fall of Jerusalem), he is saving and preserving a genuine people for himself.
Verses 15-21 seem to apply to a very specific time, back then. So what do they have to say to us, today? Well, that’s why I gave these verses the heading ‘The signs that final judgement and salvation are on their way.’ As we’ve seen, Jesus doesn’t say something like, ‘The sign that I’m coming again, to judge those who are against me and save those who’ve turned to me, will be a total eclipse in 2008 to let you know that the end is going to happen in 2009.’ But he is saying that if you want a sign that final judgement and salvation are on their way, then look back at the fall of Jerusalem: look at that judgement on unbelief and religion that rejects Jesus, which happened within history – because it acts as a sign that at the end of time, that is exactly how God will ultimately treat all unbelief and religion that rejects his Son. Having said that, God does still give further signs of coming judgement on unbelief and religion that rejects his Son, within history – e.g. whenever ‘liberal’ churches that deny the gospel dwindle in number and finally close, that is a sign of judgement. But clearly, God doesn’t bring immediate judgement on every church and cathedral that denies the gospel, or on every mosque, or every Hindu or Sikh or Buddhist temple. But the destruction of the temple is a sign to us that he will ultimately bring exactly the same judgement on all unbelief and all religion that rejects his Son – even if it appears to be flourishing now. And we need to remember that when liberalism in the church, or the human religions of the world, look successful.
The other thing to say is that God is also still giving further signs of coming salvation. The very existence of the world-wide church and the fact that faithful churches not only continue to survive but to grow – even under persecution – is a sign that God is saving and preserving a people for himself, and that nothing, absolutely nothing, can stop that. As the Lord Jesus said earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, ‘I will build my church and the gates of Hades [or hell] will not overcome it.’ (Matthew 16.17). And the wonderful growth of the church in China over the last 100 years or so – often under great persecution – is an example of that. So we also need to remember that when we fear for the future of the church, when it looks vulnerable in a secular state or in a state dominated by one of the human religions of the world.
Fourth, THE TIME WHEN FINAL JUDGEMENT AND SALVATION WILL HAPPEN (verses 29-31)
After talking about the specific event of the fall of Jerusalem, from verse 22 onwards, Jesus seems to go back to talking about the whole time-period between his first and second comings. Verses 23-28:
“At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect – if that were possible. See, I have told you ahead of time. [So verses 23-25 seem to repeat the warning of verse 4 onwards.] ‘So if anyone tells you, “There he is [i.e. ‘There is Christ come back again’], out in the desert,” do not go out; or, ‘Here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather.”
I.e. Jesus is saying that his coming again will be on a cosmic scale and will be as visible and obvious as lightning across the sky (or as a dead carcass – which is instantly visible and obvious because of the vultures circling in on it). And in verse 29 Jesus begins to describe what it will be like:
“ ‘Immediately after the distress of those days
“ ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’
“At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.” (verses 29-31)
Now look back at verse 29. Some people get worried that ‘the distress of those days’ is a reference to the fall of Jerusalem in AD70 – in which case, Jesus was therefore promising to come again ‘immediately after’ that – and has been proved wrong. But that’s not the right way to read verse 29. The right way is to see that verses 4-26 are about the whole time-period between Jesus’ first and second comings (including one very specific bit about the fall of Jerusalem). So I take it that in verse 29 Jesus is saying that immediately after the distress of that whole time-period of spiritual war, between his comings, the events of his second coming will unfold.
Now I said at the start that sometimes Christians have sometimes been embarrassed about this teaching. One reason for that is that they’ve failed to realise it’s describing a real, future event in metaphorical language (i.e. ‘picture language’ – e.g. the military picture of a king appearing for battle with his ‘sign’ (verse 30) – i.e. ensign, military banner). So if someone poked fun at the idea and said to me, ‘So we’ll literally see Jesus swooping down on a cloud will we? Riding it like a horse with reins and stirrups?’ my answer would be, ‘No. This is picture language for Jesus returning to take visible control of the whole universe.’ Another reason Christians have been embarrassed is that they feel that people will think that the very idea of the end of this universe is simply unbelievable – after all, it looks so solid and unshakeable. But if this apparently solid and unshakeable universe had a beginning – if God created it out of nothing (which he did) – then it’s perfectly believable to think it’ll have an end. This universe is a bit like the picture on a TV screen: the picture looks really solid – and yet moment by moment it depends entirely on electrons being fired at the screen and giving off light. Switch off the electrons and immediately the picture collapses into nothing. And when God ‘switches off’ his sustaining of all the processes that keep this universe going – from the force of gravity to the electrical signals in our hearts – it will end in a way that is beyond our imagination, and which Jesus therefore describes in picture language.
But again, Jesus isn’t concerned to get us imagining the future any more than he’s concerned to get us predicting it. He’s concerned to get us ready for it: concerned that we’ll be one of the people in verse 31 whom he gathers and welcomes, rather than one of the people in verse 30 who mourn the fact that they didn’t take the opportunity to receive his forgiveness and a new start with him in his rightful place in their lives.
So finally, Jesus sums up the lesson of this first part of this chunk of teaching about the end of the world. Look at verses 32-35:
“ ‘Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it [i.e. his second coming] is near, right at the door. I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.’ ”
So when you see your beech hedge (or whatever it is) putting out new growth in the spring, it’s a sign that summer is ‘near’ – not ‘near’ as in ‘about to happen immediately, in the next day or two’, but ‘near’ as in ‘it’s the next thing coming in the seasonal calendar.’ In verse 33, Jesus says that likewise, when we see all these things he’s been talking about happening in history, it’s a sign that his second coming is ‘near’ – again, not ‘near’ as in ‘about to happen immediately, in the next day or year’, but ‘near’ as in ‘it’s the next thing coming on God’s cosmic calendar for the universe.’
Now, as with verse 29, some people are worried that in verse 34 Jesus said something that has since been proved wrong: they think that Jesus was saying, ‘This generation [i.e. those first disciples he was talking to] will see all these things I’ve been talking about, including my second coming [which he’s just talked about in verses 27-31].’ Now if Jesus meant that, he has indeed been proved wrong. But the fact is: he didn’t mean that. ‘All these things’ in verse 34 means ‘all the things I’ve been talking about which are signs pointing forward to my second coming.’ I.e. by definition, ‘all these things’ in verse 34 do not include his second coming. ‘All these things’ means ‘all these things that are signs pointing forward to my second coming – up to, but not including my second coming.’ And that first generation did see all the things he talked about in verses 4-26: they saw the persecution of the church, they saw the gospel spread across the known world, they saw major natural disasters, they saw and heard about wars, they saw the Roman war on the Jews and the fall of Jerusalem in AD70. They didn’t see Jesus’ second coming – because he didn’t say they would.
So, having dealt with that potential misunderstanding, what’s the ‘lesson’ that Jesus sums up in verses 32-35? The lesson is that when we look, for example, at the fall of Jerusalem, it’s a sign pointing forward to God’s judgement on all who reject his Son, when Jesus comes again. The lesson is that, for example, when we see kingdoms and governments falling (for example, think of that statue of Saddam Hussein toppling in Iraq) it’s a sign pointing forward to the fact that ultimately all kingdoms and rulers will fall and cease to have any authority when Jesus comes again as sole King. The lesson is that, for example, when we see natural disasters shaking our planet – earthquakes, famines, tsunamis and whatever the effects of global warming will be – it’s a sign pointing forward to the fact that the entire creation will be shaken and re-made when Jesus comes again. The lesson is that, for example, when we see God’s church persecuted, infiltrated by liberalism and infected by immorality, and yet surviving, and growing – it’s a sign pointing forward to the fact that by God’s grace, he will bring his people through the biggest ‘distress’ of them all – the day of judgement, when Jesus comes again.
So to those who ask Jesus for a timetable and a sign of his second coming, he says: I don’t want you to be trying to predict the future or imagine the future; I want to get you ready for the future. And he says that, for those with eyes to see, all these things he has spoken about – all these things that have happened, and are happening, in history – are in fact signs that final judgement and salvation are not just on their way, but have begun already.
A NOTE ON INTERPRETING THIS PASSAGE
The interpretation I’ve given in this sermon is that:
• Verses 4-26 are about the whole period between Jesus’ first and second comings (which includes the very specific event of the destruction of the temple and the fall of Jerusalem, foretold in verses 15-21).
• Verses 27-31 then talk about Jesus’ second coming, in which ‘Immediately after the distress of those days’ (verse 29) means ‘Immediately after the distress of the whole period of spiritual warfare between Jesus’ first and second comings’.
• Verses 32-35 then spell out the lesson that, as we see all the things happening in history that Jesus has spoken of in verses 4-26, we should perceive that they are signs pointing forward to his second coming – and they tell us that it is ‘near’ in the sense that it is ‘the next thing in the cosmic calendar.’ But they do not tell us how near (for example, next year? next millennium?)
• Sometimes people misunderstand verse 29 and verse 34 and take them to mean that Jesus expected to come again immediately after the fall of Jerusalem, in the lifetime of that first generation of Christians. But this is a misinterpretation, as I’ve explained in the sermon.
Probably the main alternative interpretation put forward by some scholars and commentaries is this:
• Verses 4-31 is solely about the period up to and including the destruction of the temple and fall of Jerusalem in AD70 – i.e. it’s solely about the experience of that first generation and their persecutions and their evangelism and their problems with false Christ’s and prophets, and their being caught up in the events of AD70, etc.
• Verses 29-31: in this interpretation, where verse 29 says, ‘Immediately after the distress of those days’, ‘those days’ is taken to mean the same as ‘those days’ in verse 19, i.e. those days in the run-up to the fall of Jerusalem in AD70. So in this interpretation, ‘Immediately after the distress of those days’ then refers to the time of the fall of Jerusalem and it is argued that the fall of Jerusalem, not the second coming, is what is being foretold in verses 29-31. One reason for arguing this is that Jesus was using Old Testament imagery in verses 29-31. If you look at a passage like Isaiah 13.10 it talks about God’s coming judgement on Babylon using language like this: ‘The stars of heaven and their constellations will not show their light; The rising sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light.’ So it is true that that kind of ‘cosmic’ language can be used to describe God’s judgements within history – such as the fall of Babylon. But it could certainly also be used to describe God’s final judgement at the end of history – and that seems the much more likely interpretation of verses 29-31, to me. for example, in Matthew 16.27 Jesus has already talked about his second coming by saying, ‘For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done.’ And in Matthew 13.40, Jesus has already said, ‘As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. 41The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. 42They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.’ Those cross-references support the interpretation that Matthew 24.30-31 are about Jesus’ second coming at the end of the age, to judge all people – not his ‘coming’ on judgement on the people of Jerusalem and Judea in AD70 by allowing the Roman war.
• Verse 31, in this interpretation, is then picture language for world evangelisation after AD70: ‘angels’ can also be translated ‘messengers’ – they could be messengers of the gospel of the human variety. But this doesn’t seem to be the most natural reading of the verse.
• Verses 32-35: in this interpretation, verse 34 cannot be misunderstood to mean that Jesus thought that that first generation of Christians would see his second coming – because in this interpretation, Jesus hasn’t yet started teaching about his second coming (except for a quick aside in verses 27-28). On this interpretation, apart from the aside in verses 27-28, Jesus’ teaching in verses 4-31 is solely about the period up to and including the destruction of the temple and fall of Jerusalem in AD70 and only from verse 36 onwards does he begin to teach about his second coming and the end of the age. But I’ve already shown that verse 34 need not be misinterpreted to mean that Jesus foretold something that didn’t happen, if we read the passage carefully and realise that by ‘all these things’ Jesus meant ‘all these things in history up to but not including my second coming.’