When will Jesus return? How ought we to live until then?
Read Matthew 24:36-44. A former Bible college acquaintance of mine went off the rails. He predicted that the end would begin on a specific month one year, and if it did not occur, he would declare himself a false prophet. As we have seen before in Christian history, the predicted date came and went, and instead of stepping down and declaring himself a false prophet, he came up with a brilliant excuse as to why his prophecies failed. When is the end of the world? In Matthew 24, Jesus' disciples asked him about it. What did he say? He predicted two things, the fall of Jerusalem which occurred in 70AD and that the end was not yet. The apostles wanted to know the sign of his coming and of the end of the age. Most of the sermon in Matthew 24 detailed the devastating events soon to follow, the end of an era for the Jews. The only specifics about when the end of the world would come were that the Gospel would be preached in the whole world and that no one knows the day or the hour of his return. So let's ignore the false prophets who say that Jesus will come this year or next. Instead, keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. That's what Jesus said.
Many claim to have the keys to prophecy, but are eventually proven wrong. Others bury their heads in the sand. Is there a balanced approach? How ought we to view the second coming of Jesus Christ? In every generation for the past 2,000 years, people have predicted that Jesus would return in their lifetimes and others have scoffed. Their prophecies all failed, giving more ammunition for those who love to ridicule. Naive Christians willingly follow dogmatically wild and speculative interpretations of prophecies and doubters willingly sneer. However, neither extreme is how prophecies are written. The Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24 is a case in point. Here is a warning about being too specific with predictions such as the day of his return. The opposite is also true as Jesus warned about being lackadaisical by not keeping prayerful watch.
In contrast to the usual apocalyptic visions, Matthew 24:38 includes some pictures of apparent normality before the second coming. There is nothing to suggest that eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage are more evil. People will be carrying on normal business on farms and in flour mills. It appears more likely that they either don’t notice or are ignoring the events around them and carrying on with business as usual. It is in such an outward sense of normalcy that believers are encouraged to keep watch. Routine can distract us and delude us into thinking that we don’t need to keep vigilant watch in prayerful preparation for his return. It appears then that in such apocalyptic times there may also be periods of normalcy. It is perhaps during those times that watching will be even more imperative.
A part of the Olivet Discourse Matthew 24:39 is not only about calamitous events around the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, but also hints at similar events before the second coming. An interesting aspect of the prophecy is a list of things that we do not know. This is important because in order to be sure of what we do know, it is also vital to clearly understand what we don’t know or cannot know. When this was written nobody knew the day or hour. There is nothing to suggest that has changed because the story proposes that knowledge of end times will be just as knowledge of when Noah’s flood came. Nobody knew when that would happen either. We also read again that the audience would not know the day and that Jesus would come when unexpected.
The popular “left behind” theory suggests that people left behind are somehow those who are sinful and rebellious against God. They will not escape but are left behind, while the righteous are whisked away, so the idea goes. It is a teaching from dispensational theology. Yet Matthew 24:40 suggests the exact opposite to this viewpoint. The analogy in the Olivet Discourse compares those taken away with those who were swept away in Noah’s flood. In that case, those who were condemned were taken away and only the righteous were left behind. Rather than the righteous escaping by being taken away, the natural reading of this passage is the exact opposite of the “left behind” theories. The problem with prophetic theories is that they are inadequate. God gives enough clues to encourage hope, but leaves enough out to stimulate faith.
Matthew 24:42 is part of the Olivet discourse or Olivet prophecy. It is also called the little apocalypse because it is reminiscent of the book of Revelation. Apocalyptic writings are a symbolic genre, a point that literal interpretations often overlook. One of the mandates in the passage is to watch. What could that mean? A night watchman was a common task in cities, farms and villages. However, the task of a watchman was vigilance and that is the sense of the wording here. Similar wording is also used a little later in Matthew 26:41 where we are encouraged to watch and pray that we do not give into temptation. In the context of the prophecy, Jesus encouraged disciples to be ready at all times, because he is coming at an hour when we do not think he will.
Two similar instructions are given in Matthew 24:42, watch and be ready. But watch what? At Jesus’ birth we read that shepherds watched their flocks by night, obviously to protect them from predators. What was Jesus’ focus when he said to watch? A watch is set when we want to protect our things from theft or our country from an enemy. We don’t know when they may be coming so we watch. In Revelation 16:15 the analogy is carried further as Jesus warns us to remain clothed. Another way of saying this is found in Mark 14:38. We are to watch and pray that we do not fall into temptation. Unlike the five foolish virgins (Matthew 25:1-13) a good watch is someone who is always at the ready, always on guard lest the enemy tempt them.
In Matthew 24:42-43 Jesus said that two men would be working in the field, one would be taken and the other left. He also said that two women would be grinding at the mill, one would be taken and the other left. Some suggest that this ties in with the rapture, that those taken are blessed to meet the Lord in the air (1 Thessalonians 4:17), while those who are not are not worthy. Others suggest that the contrast with Noah’s flood shows that those taken are like those sinners swept away in the flood and those left are the blessed. Such prophetic guessing games supporting various theories made up by mere men miss the whole point. The whole point of the passage is not to argue over the how of the second coming, but to be ready.
How is Jesus like a burglar? In Matthew 24:43 Jesus’ second coming is compared to that of a thief in the night. In a day when most villages did not have a police force, security was left to individual home owners. Neighbors would often combine forces and work out rosters for night watch. Jesus is like a burglar in only one way, his coming will be unexpected. The only way to deal with the threat of those who break into homes in the night is by being prepared and keeping watch. Before Jesus’ return, most people will be going about their daily business uninterested in the things of God and unaware of the approach of his coming. We are challenged to stay alert. We are challenged to to be vigilant. We are challenged to be prepared for Jesus’ coming.
In the midst of commercial chaos and pressure to buy things is a very important reminder for Christians: be ready. The Advent season is a time to be ready for the celebration of Christ’s first coming. The custom of the Advent wreath is a reminder to be ready. Four Sundays leading up to Christmas candles remind us of stories surrounding the first coming of our Savior. Some popular choices are four red or purple or blue candles surrounding a white one. One of the four may be pink picturing joy or Mary. The first Sunday a candle is lit to remind us of important events. Then a second candle the next Sunday and so on until finally on Christmas Day the central Christ candle is lit. Preparation also reminds us to be ready for his second coming. One man spent his life ready for Christ’s return.
Who is the most popular Christian outside of the Bible? We may think of many famous names but the answer is Nicholas of Myra, who was loved by many in his time and those know his story today. The fiction surrounding him has grown to the point that he is the second most prominent Christmas character after Jesus. Why is he so popular? Though he was very wealthy, he spent his life giving it away touching the lives of thousands. He saved many from financial ruin, helped out in disasters, defended people in court from false charges, provided food during famines, saved children from slavery, travelers from murder and prayed and saved sailors from shipwreck. The real Saint Nicholas is loved because he watched and waited for the Lord rather than what this world had to offer (Matthew 24:36-44).
Why not tell our kids about the REAL Santa this year? Saint Nicholas was Bishop of Myra in ancient Turkey. He was well known for his generous giving of gifts. One famous story speaks of his giving dowries to a poor man, so that his daughters could get married rather than turn to prostitution in order to survive. Often he would travel to distant villages on a donkey to give gifts. He did not have elves, but he did apparently save an Ethiopian boy name Piter from slavery, who was so grateful that he hung around as Nicholas' assistant. Rather than condone paganism, Nicholas is said to have destroyed several pagan temples. The REAL story of Santa is about giving. Maybe we could teach our children what Acts 20:35 says, that it is more blessed to give than receive.
Nicholas, was born around 280 AD on the Mediterranean coast of what is now the Turkish Riviera. The only son of wealthy Greek Christians, Nicholas gave his inheritance away to the poor. As bishop of Myra, he suffered persecution under Diocletian. He was tortured and imprisoned. Emperor Constantine had the persecuted Christians released. One legend tells of a poor man who Nicholas gave three bags of gold as a dowry for his daughters, so they did not have to become prostitutes. Nicholas was possibly part of the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD where he contributed to the Nicene Creed and condemned Arianism. Nicholas saved three innocent men from execution and reproved the governor for taking bribes to convict them. He became known for his secret gift-giving. The name Santa Claus is a corruption of the Dutch for Saint Nicholas.
Rather than becoming sucked into the consumerism and materialism of this world, let us live out the kingdom of God here and now, like the man from Myra who gave away his life’s fortune so that others could be blessed. We cannot know when Christ will return but he will and we must keep watch. We need to watch and pray so that when he comes we will be ready.