Monday, October 17, 2011

Matthew 24

Matthew 24 (ESV): The end

Synopsis

This is another instance where I’m combining a few ESV section headings into one post, since they’re all related to one larger point that Jesus is making regarding the end of the world. (Hence my clever, clever title of “the end”.)

Jesus Foretells the Destruction of the Temple (verses 1–2 (ESV))
First, as Jesus and the disciples are leaving the temple the disciples point out to Jesus the buildings of the temple, and Jesus tells them that it is going to be destroyed. That, in fact, not one stone will be left upon another—it will be completely destroyed. Which leads to…

Signs of the Close of the Age (verses 3–14 (ESV))
… when the disciples approach Jesus privately, a little later, and ask him when this is going to happen. And what signs they can look for to indicate his coming and the close of the age.

Jesus’ first answer to them is to warn them not to let anyone lead them astray. Not an idle comment, either, since Jesus tells them that many will be led astray, when people come in His name, claiming to be Him. There will also be wars, and rumours of wars, but Jesus’ followers are still not to be alarmed—these are things that must take place, but it’s still not the end. When nation rises against nation, and when there are famines, and when there are earthquakes, these are all just the beginning of “the birth pains” (verse 8 (ESV)).

And then… it will get even worse.

“Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.” (verses 9–12 (ESV), Jesus speaking)
However, those who endure to the end will be saved, and the gospel will be proclaimed to the whole world. Then the end will come.

The Abomination of Desolation (verses 15–28 (ESV))
So when Jesus’ followers see “the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel” standing in “the holy place” (verse 15 (ESV)), they should flee, and they should do it quickly—don’t even stop for your coat! Because when that happens there will be “great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be” (verse 21 (ESV)). In fact, God will have to cut it short for the sake of His children, lest the entire population of the world be wiped out.

If anyone then tells Jesus’ disciples that the Christ has come, they aren’t to believe it. There will be a bunch of “false Christs,” and false prophets, many of whom will even have “signs and wonders” as supposed proof of their divinity, trying to deceive “the elect” (that is, believers) (verse 24 (ESV)). But despite any signs or wonders that these false Christs are displaying, the elect should not believe them—when the Christ comes, it will be plain to everyone that He has come: “For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (verse 27 (ESV)).

Then Jesus says something that I don’t understand at all (so as usual I’ll simply quote the ESV Study Bible notes in my Thoughts below):

“Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” (verse 28 (ESV), Jesus speaking)
The Coming of the Son of Man (verses 29–31 (ESV))
The “tribulation” sounds pretty bad, but the good news is that as soon as it’s over the Son of Man will come. The sun and the moon will darken and the stars will fall out of the sky, and He will appear in heaven. All people will mourn, but He will send out His angels to gather the elect from everywhere.

The Lesson of the Fig Tree (verses 32–35 (ESV))
Jesus now uses a metaphor to illustrate how his followers should be able to interpret these events: when a fig tree starts to put out leaves, everyone knows that summer is near. So also, when we see these things—I assume he means the tribulation—we will know that “he” is near—I think referring to himself. And that point is coming soon:

“Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” (verses 34–35 (ESV), Jesus speaking)
No One Knows That Day and Hour (verses 36–51 (ESV))
In this final part of the chapter, Jesus addresses the one question that was probably highest on the disciples’ minds: When will all of this happen? And if they were hoping for that answer, they are disappointed: Jesus tells them that no one knows except for the Father. No person, no angel, not even the Son knows when the end is going to come; the Father alone knows. (This was shocking to me the first time I read it, and I don’t claim to have my head around it yet: How does Jesus, who is fully man but also fully God, not know something? How does that work? It doesn’t even seem to make sense to me—but there it is, in the Bible. Jesus doesn’t know when the end will be. Or, if He does, He didn’t at the time that he was speaking to the disciples in this passage.)

Not only does nobody (except for the Father) know, but neither are they going to figure it out. Jesus uses this long-ish passage to illustrate in various ways that when this all happens, it’s going to take everyone by surprise. He also tells a couple of mini parables, to indicate how that fact should impact the way we live our lives:
  • If a thief was going to break into someone’s house, and that person knew when the thief was going to do it, he wouldn’t have gone to sleep that night: he would have stayed awake to prevent the thief. Similarly we should also be ready, because the Son of Man is coming at an hour that we don’t expect.
  • If a person puts his servant in control of the household and leaves, and then comes back to find that the servant has been properly doing his job while the master was gone, then the servant will be rewarded. Contrarily, if the master comes back to find that the servant was misbehaving, under the assumption that the master would be delayed and he had time to party in the interim, then the master will “cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (verse 51 (ESV)).

Thoughts

Later on, when the Jews are seeking to have Jesus crucified and he is being accused of crimes before the Jewish council, his prediction of the temple being destroyed is combined with his prediction that he is going to die and be raised in three days to become an accusation that he had claimed he was able to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days (see 26:57–68 (ESV)). Jesus’ prediction of dying and raising back to life was fulfilled a short while later; his prediction of the destruction of the temple was fulfilled in A.D. 70.

It’s not surprising that the disciples ask Jesus for the signs of what is to come, and information on when it’s going to happen. We’re pretty much all fascinated by that, aren’t we? Personally, I find myself caring very little about these details about the end of the world—I figure God’s got it in control, and He’ll take care of me through all of that—but even I find myself fascinated with passages like this. But the first thing Jesus says to them is that they shouldn’t let anyone lead them astray. People are going to come claiming to be him; there are going to be a lot of bad things that will happen, that people will assume are signs of the end of the world, there will be persecution of the Church, but through all of this we’re not to give in to thoughts that it’s the end. It’s especially interesting how Jesus does talk about the end:

And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (verse 14 (ESV))
That’s it. Just… “and then the end will come.” What we’d expect Jesus to say—and, essentially, what the disciples were asking for—was something like, “and then the mountains will shake and the seas will turn to blood, and I will descend from heaven on a cloud,” or something like that. And Jesus does say something along those lines in a few verses. But first, he seems to care very little about telling the disciples what will actually happen when he comes; he’s more interested in telling them not to start making assumptions about the end being imminent because of the things that come before. Something that we’re still very prone to now. Any time a new war breaks out, or there is a large natural disaster, or sometimes even just when New Year’s Eve comes around, there will invariably be people who take it as a sign that the end is coming. Ironically, they will often point to passages like this, where Jesus is explicitly warning us against this constant obsession with the end, as their “proof” that this war/disaster/whatever is the indication of the end, as (they claim) Jesus predicted.

Our main defense against this is to know our Bibles. When a war breaks out, and people claim that it’s a sign of the end, it should sound “off” to us, because of passages like this.

Interestingly, though, after Jesus says this, the next thing he does is talk about “the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel,” and about the tribulation that will take place. So if wars and natural disasters aren’t supposed to lead us to believe that the end is here, how will we be able to recognize this “abomination of desolation”? Two thoughts on that, which may or may not be interrelated:
  1. Perhaps, similar to what Jesus says about the false Christs later, it will just be so stunningly obvious who (or what) the “abomination of desolation” is that we shouldn’t jump at anything supposing it’s the end; when the end does come, it will be evident, rather than hints or clues that we need to piece together.
  2. Or perhaps it just doesn’t matter, and we aren’t supposed to be looking for clues about the end of the world in the first place. As a Christian, when the end of the world does come, how will it impact me? I should still be loving God with all my heart and loving my neighbour as myself. I should still be caring for the poor. (If I have the ability to do so; I don’t know if people will still be working, or have money, or have food to share, or whatever.) I should still be leading a holy life. I don’t think we’re supposed to take Jesus’ comments about fleeing to the mountains to mean that we’re to completely disengage from the world and go and live in our own little worlds; I think he’s just emphasizing to them how bad the tribulation will be. (I could very easily be wrong on that; I’m not going to fight anyone on this point…)
In any event, it’s clear that when Jesus returns there will be no question that it’s Him. There will be lots of false Christs and false prophets, and they’ll deceive some but not all, but when He really does come there won’t be any question in anyone’s mind. That means that if anyone ever tries to convince you that Jesus has returned, and tries to offer proof for it based on some miracles the person has performed, there is a very easy test to determine if it’s Him or not: the very fact that they’re trying to convince you, and you don’t already realize it’s Jesus, is proof that it’s not.

Or put it this way: Imagine that you and I are in a room together. I tell you to close your eyes, and at some point I’m going to punch you in the face. There are also some flies in the room, and every once in a while one brushes against your face; you’re so focused on the fact that I’m going to punch you that everytime a fly hits you you keep wondering… is this it? Is this it? A fly is nothing like a punch in the face, so you’ll quickly realize that oh that was just a fly, but the punch is all that you’re anticipating, so anything that touches your face is going to make you think of it. The longer this goes on, the more you might be tempted to think every fly brushing against your face is it; eventually you might start to wonder if I’m ever going to hit you. If it goes on long enough, you might start to think I had never actually intended to hit you, but that “punching you in the face” was a metaphor for all of the flies that have brushed against you. But when I do finally punch you in the face, it will be quite evident what has happened.

Is this a valid metaphor to use? I guess it depends if you’re a Christian or not. If you’re one of God’s children, then when the end comes it won’t feel so much like a punch in the face—but if you’re not, it will be much, much worse.

As mentioned above, for verse 28 about the vultures, I’ll simply quote the note from the ESV Study Bible note on that verse:

Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather. It seems best not to “over-interpret” this striking proverbial expression. It probably means simply that, just as people from far away can see vultures circling high in the air, Christ’s return in judgment will be visible and predictable. A similar view is that the vultures suggest the widespread death that will accompany the return of Christ to judge those who have rejected his kingdom. In either case, it will be impossible for people not to see and recognize the return of Christ.
After this metaphor concerning the vultures, Jesus talks about His return, and now we get a taste of what we were expecting Jesus to talk about in the first place: The sun and the moon darkening and the stars falling from the sky, before Jesus comes with power on the clouds. It’s possible that some people might take this language about coming down on clouds to be metaphorical, but in this case I don’t think so simply because of what he said before about his return: when he comes, we’ll know it. There won’t be any question.

As a side note, I’m having trouble being consistent with calling Jesus “he” vs. “He” (i.e. capitalization). Jesus is fully God and fully man; I’ve typically been using “he” when talking about Jesus the man, but using “He” when talking about Jesus as God. Which is a purely arbitrary distinction because He is both. But typically the Gospels are referring to him as “he,” and I have been too—and yet when I think of His return, I just naturally start calling Him “He.” So if there are inconsistencies, that’s why…

I emphasized above, or at least hinted, that we aren’t to start going crazy seeing the end of the world in every war and natural disaster, and that in my oh-so-humble opinion we shouldn’t really be focused on the end of the world at all—let God deal with that. He knows what He’s doing, and what His timetable is. Is that contradicted by Jesus using the metaphor of the fig tree, and being able to understand when the end is coming? And does Jesus then contradict himself, when he says next that no one knows the day and the hour? Not if we take it all in the context of this one larger passage (one reason I’m glad I decided to do this entire chapter, instead of piecing it out part by part). Jesus is saying that when he does come, it will be obvious to one and all that he has come. I am extrapolating a bit, but I think that is also his point about the “abomination that brings desolation”—it will be obvious to one and all when he/it comes. So that means two things:
  1. As mentioned above, if there is any doubt, then it’s not what you think it is. So stop looking for Jesus (or the “abomination that brings desolation”) at every turn.
  2. When it does happen, since it will be painfully obvious to all what is happening, realize that the end is imminent. Once this starts happening, any hopes you had of repenting on your deathbed or something are officially expired—you need to make your peace with God, and it’s your absolute last chance. Unfortunately, as Jesus describes things, it doesn’t sound like people are going to take advantage of their one last chance, which is all the more reason we need to evangelize while people are still able to listen and receive.
And, since we don’t know when this is going to happen, and won’t know ahead of time (but will find out when it actually happens), Jesus says that we simply have to be ready all the time. It could happen right now, or it could be another thousand years, or it could be another six thousand years, or it could be next week, or… you get the idea. Because he emphasizes that it will be a surprise, and nobody knows, and nobody is going to figure it out ahead of time, it leads me to probably go too far the other way, meaning that any time someone predicts the end of the earth on a particular date, I get immediately confident that that will not be the day! I feel like the world could end at any day, minute, hour, or year, except a day when it’s been predicted (such as, for example, the year 2000, when people figured the world was going to end because it was a round number). I don’t think it’s valid for me to make that assumption, either.

That being said… I have heard people argue the flip side of Jesus’ point: Jesus’ makes it quite clear that we won’t know when the end is going to come, but that doesn’t mean we won’t know when it can’t come. What they mean by that is that there are certain things that the Bible says must happen before the end will come, so, ipso facto, until those things have happened it won’t come. My initial reaction is to dismiss that immediately as a way of getting around Jesus’ words. The only thing that gives me pause, and makes me think about it, is that some of the people I’ve heard say that are people I respect and trust when it comes to biblical knowledge. (Not all; some are people who are obsessed with piecing together the mysterious clues they believe are in the Bible to give us this secret information, and who are simply trying to get around Jesus’ clear words in this passage that nobody will figure it out. Those people I dismiss more easily.) However, if it’s true that we can know that the world is not going to end yet because “such and such” hasn’t yet occurred, then it also negates much of Jesus’ point in verses 36–51 (ESV) of this passage. Jesus tells us that we need to be ready at all times because He could come back at any minute, and then we decide that actually, he can’t come back yet, because “such and such” hasn’t happened. (And doesn’t that put us squarely in the position of the wicked servant, who thought his master was delayed?) These people would probably say that Jesus tells us this so that we’ll live as if the end could come at any minute; that even though we “know” He can’t come back yet because these things (whatever they are) haven’t happened yet we should pretend that He could, and live as if He could. That just seems a bit too devious to me; that Jesus is explicitly lying to us to try and get us to live in a particular way, instead of being honest about it and knowing that the Holy Spirit will help us to live right, even if He can’t return just quite yet. (Either that or they believe that Jesus didn’t know that there were preconditions when this passage happened and he said all of these things, and those preconditions were exposed later on after His death—in which case why did God choose to put this passage in the canon of Scripture? Which brings us back to Him lying to us, to trick us into living the way He wants us to.) As is probably evident, even though I respect some of the people who are in the “it can’t happen yet because ‘such and such’ hasn’t happened yet” camp, I think they’re wrong on this one.

This passage makes it clear that there are obvious dangers in trying to predict the end of the world and what’s going to happen when, and I think that applies just as much to saying that it can’t yet happen. But the good news is that I fall back on my default, core, base belief on the end of the world: I don’t need to know because God does, and He is in control. If I’m still alive when the tribulation Jesus is talking about happens, God will see me through it. Or, better yet, it will kill me and I’ll go home to Him.
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