Jesus tells us how to prepare for the end of the world. It may not be what you think.
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Download Matthew Part 86
Matthew #86. Matthew 24:36-51
Among followers of Jesus, these may be some of his most-ignored words. You can hardly swing a stick in an Evangelical church without hitting two or three people (at least) who are “into the end times.” Some remarkable things have happened during the past fifty years or so, and many people try and fit those events into some sort of timeline for the end of the world. They pore over passages from Daniel and Revelation, and also study some of the things that Jesus says, here at the end of Matthew. From these obscure, and difficult-to-understand passages, they build a scenario that will indicate to them when the world will end.
It’s a tempting hobby. In fact, it is often fascinating and exciting. I think the best of it is that it gives people hope, and helps them to see that God is still active in human history. But there is a downside too. Some people may become disillusioned, and perhaps even lose faith, when the world doesn’t end on their timetable. Their main faith is not in Jesus Christ, the Person, but rather in their theoretical constructions of the end times. And even more common, I think, is that “studying the end times” becomes a way to avoid really living as a Jesus-follower in everyday life. It gratifies a sense of religious duty (“I’m studying the Bible!”) without challenging anyone to actual obedience to Jesus at any specific point. Years ago, someone left our church because I (as the pastor) did not have the same specific view of end-times as he did. I think he was a good guy, but that is no reason to break fellowship. I wonder sometimes if he would leave a church that agreed with him on end times, but taught that sex outside of marriage is not sinful.
My point is, “end times” theology is very sketchy, and neither Jesus nor the apostles define it as closely as many people do today. How can I say that? Because Jesus said it! Just in case you didn’t open your Bible for this one, here it is:
36“Now concerning that day and hour no one knows — neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son — except the Father only. (Matt 24:36, HCSB)
Unless you are God the Father (and trust me, you’re not), you don’t have a clue when the end of the world will be. The entire section of verses 36-44 is Jesus belaboring that exact point. He says it will be like the days of Noah. God told Noah the flood was coming. Jesus has told us that He will return. Noah prepared for the flood, following God’s instructions, but he did not know when it would be, until the very moment when God told him to get on the ark. The other people had no awareness of the coming of the flood until it happened. Jesus says “so this is the way the coming of the Son of Man will be (verse 39).” He describes people going about their everyday lives until the very moment he returns. In verse 42 he says: “Therefore, be alert, since you don’t know what day your Lord is coming.” In case we somehow missed the point, Jesus says it again in verse 44: “This is why you also must be ready, because the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”
Some people may try to find wiggle-room. They might say, “Jesus says we won’t know the exact day, or the exact hour of the day. But we could still find out the year, or possibly even the month.” I say: Nonsense! In the first place, just back up and read the passage for what it is. His main point is quite obvious: You are not going to be able to figure out, when he will return. If you were to say, “We can’t figure out the exact day, but we can know the year, (or even the decade),” it overturns the entire point that Jesus is making here.
Let’s put this to bed once and for all. The Greek word used for “day” is hemera. It can mean a literal 24 hour day, of course. But it is also used figuratively to mean “time period.” In Romans 3:13, Paul instructs us to “walk in the day.” Obviously he doesn’t mean a specific, literal day. The New Testament uses the word for the “Day of the Lord” and for the “day of God’s wrath,” which are obviously time periods, not literal 24 hour days. Zechariah says Elizabeth is far along in “days” (meaning years; Luke 1:18). Jesus, in Luke 17:28, refers to the “days of Lot.” Hebrews 5:7 uses the word to talk about the whole earthly life of Jesus. So when Jesus says we won’t know the day, He is using the word figuratively. He is saying, you won’t know when it will be.
The Greek for “hour” is similar – it can be either literal or figurative. In Matthew 10:19, Jesus tells us that when we are persecuted, we don’t have to worry about what we will say “in that hour.” He doesn’t mean that his followers will only suffer sixty minutes of persecution. He means “when the time comes.” In Mark 14:35, in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed that the “hour” of his suffering might pass from him. He didn’t mean he would only suffer for sixty minutes – in fact the suffering of his crucifixion, and the beatings that went before it, was much longer than that.
Folks, I don’t know how to be more clear than Jesus. You cannot know when he will return. He says so, three times in eight verses. It is a waste of time, and a diversion of your spiritual energy, to try and build a timeline for the end of the world, or to try and figure out which current events are represented in apocalyptic prophecy. It takes you away from the important, everyday challenges of following Jesus in real life.
Even so, there is something you should do about the end times. The fact that Jesus is returning, and the fact that we don’t know when, should lead us to live a certain way.
Two times in the verses, Jesus tells us to be ready.
Therefore be alert, since you don’t know what day your Lord is coming (Matt 24:42 HCSB).
This is why you also must be ready, because the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. (Matt 24:44, HCSB)
In verses 45-51, Jesus tells us what it means to be alert, and to be ready. He uses an analogy that would have been familiar to his disciples, but maybe not so much for us: a slave entrusted with great responsibility by his master. Slavery at the time of Jesus was not exactly like the slavery of the 19th century in America, or European slavery of the 18th century, or earlier. In the ancient Roman world, it is true, there were some type of slaves who were severely oppressed, and given no hope. Those were usually either criminals who were enslaved as punishment, or enemies captured in war and enslaved (armies in those days generally either killed their enemies, or enslaved them. There were no “prisoners of war”).
However, unlike 19th century America, there was no major industry (like producing sugar, or cotton) that depended heavily upon the work of slaves. Instead the majority of slaves in Jesus’ time were people who served their masters with a great deal of personal freedom. Many of them, in fact, had sold themselves into slavery for a period of time in order to pay debts, and had hope of obtaining freedom. Rather than what we normally think of when we hear the word “slavery,” it was more like indentured servitude. Now, I am not saying slavery was wonderful back then, but it probably wasn’t as bad for most slaves in Biblical times, as it was for those who worked on American cotton plantations in the 1800s.
Often times, a wealthy man had a slave who served as “director of operations” for his business and household. That slave could arrange his day as best as he saw fit, as long as he was diligent about his master’s business. He could conduct business transactions in the name of his master, and generally look after his master’s affairs. Such a slave was often in charge of other slaves (such as those who cleaned the master’s house, or transported his goods and so on). He had a respectable position of responsibility, and was often well rewarded for it.
If such a slave abused his position, however, he did not have the rights of a free citizen. His master would be fully justified in selling him as a galley-slave, or to the salt mines, where existence was miserable, and life was short.
Maybe another way to summarize Jesus’ words are this: “You never know when I will return. So live each day as if it will be today. Live in such a way that you will not be ashamed or afraid if I should return at this very moment.”
What does that mean, practically? Well, like the “operations manager,” Jesus has given all of us certain responsibilities. Some of those responsibilities are the same for all Jesus-followers. It starts with receiving His grace through repentance and trust, not as a result of anything we ourselves have done, or could do. Then, we are to keep on learning more of what he has said through the Bible, and learn to obey him. We are supposed to have close fellowship with other believers, and live out our faith in the context of Christian community and service. We are also supposed to share God’s truth and His love with those that God has put into our lives. All of these are things that should become lifetime practices for everyone who calls themselves Christians. That’s how you prepare for the end of the world.
It might be easy to get caught up into thinking, “But should I take this job, or that one? Should I go on the mission field, or serve by staying here, and supporting missionaries through prayer and giving? Should I go to college? If so, which one?” Sometimes, those specific questions can be unnecessarily distracting. I think if we focus on what I just said: Trust, Obedience, Learning, Christian community and Christian service; all the other things will fall into place. I think that is the point Jesus is making. Don’t get distracted. Keep to the main things, remain faithful.
What if we do all these things, and yet we die before Jesus returns? Practically speaking, for us, the day of our death is essentially the same as the day of Jesus’ returning. I don’t mean Jesus won’t come back one day, and bring about the end of the world as we know it. I just mean that my own death brings about basically the same result, for me, as the day of His return. For my lifetime, and at that moment (either my death, or his return) have I been faithfully going about his business? That’s the question for all of us. That’s how we determine if we are ready for the end of the world.