REVELATION #30: The Reality of Spiritual Victory. Rev 14:1-5

Rev_30This whole section of Revelation is about the underlying spiritual reality that is affecting the events of our physical lives. It is here to remind the first readers, and us, that the things that we experience every day are also part of an underlying spiritual reality that we cannot see, but is nonetheless very real. In that Spiritual Reality, we are already holy and blameless (Ephesians 1:6); already seated with Christ in the heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6); we have already been raised to life with Christ, and our lives are hidden with him (Colossian 3:1-2). We are already singing the song of the redeemed, already walking with the Lamb wherever he goes (our text for today).

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download Revelation Part 30

Revelation #30.  Revelation 14:1-5

It is so easy, when reading Revelation to fall into the trap of interpreting things literally. In this passage, one of the things we fixate on is this weird idea:

These are the ones not defiled with women, for they have kept their virginity.  (verse 4)

But let’s back up. We don’t think the beast is literally an animal, but rather its description is figurative. We don’t think that 144,000 is a literal number. Instead, the number symbolizes all of God’s redeemed people – whatever the actual number will be. So, before we go crazy on verse four, let’s consider what it might mean if this, too, is a symbolic idea.

There are two very important principles of Bible interpretation that we should apply here. One is the principle that we interpret the Bible in such a way that it does not contradict itself. In other words, if there is a way to harmonize apparently contradictory passages, we choose that over an interpretation that creates a contradiction. That is how we read every other book – we don’t assume the author has contradicted himself if we don’t have to. Also, we interpret obscure passages in the light of what is clear elsewhere. So, what we have today is an obscure passage. Are there clear passages that would help us understand it? Yes, indeed. Let’s look at them.

The Bible has a very well-defined standard for human sexuality. According to the Bible, sex was made by God, and part of the creation that he called “good.” Sex was made for marriage, and for marriage only. Any sexual activity outside of marriage is called “sexual immorality,” and is considered sinful. But sex within marriage is good, and intended by God. It is a wonderful, powerful tool to help married couples build and maintain intimacy. In fact, the Bible even teaches that married couples should have sex regularly, and should not stop doing so except for mutually agreed upon breaks for prayer and fasting:

1 Now in response to the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have relations with a woman.” 2 But because sexual immorality is so common, each man should have his own wife, and each woman should have her own husband. 3 A husband should fulfill his marital responsibility to his wife, and likewise a wife to her husband. 4 A wife does not have the right over her own body, but her husband does. In the same way, a husband does not have the right over his own body, but his wife does. 5 Do not deprive one another sexually — except when you agree for a time, to devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again; otherwise, Satan may tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 6 I say the following as a concession, not as a command. 7 I wish that all people were just like me. But each has his own gift from God, one person in this way and another in that way. (HCSB 1 Corinthians 7:1-7)

When Paul says “I say this as a concession, not a command,” he is talking about singleness, not sex within marriage. His own gift – the thing that he wishes everyone was like him in – was the gift of being single and celibate. But the teaching is, if you can’t be single and celibate, you should get married, and once you are married, you should not deprive each other without mutual agreement. Sex is complicated, and it requires a lot of clear, honest communicating with each other about. I’m not saying that no partner should ever have the right to say “no.” But the plain sense of this passage is that sex is supposed to be a good and important part of marriage.

Therefore (and the passage above isn’t the only place where this is taught) we cannot take Revelation chapter 14 to mean that all sex defiles a person; intimacy between married people is, in a way, holy. It is certainly not defiling. Early Christian writers like Augustine (and many others) believed that when spouses remained monogamous they were, in a spiritual sense, still “virgins.”

Also, the phrasing “defiled themselves with women,” if we take it literally, means that the 144,000 includes only men. But even the earliest Christians rejected this notion, and taught that both men and women were intended in this passage, and in fact, in all passages of scripture:

And indeed not to men only does the Lord promise the grace of continence, disregarding women; but since woman is a part of man and was taken and formed from him, almost universally in the Scriptures God addresses the first formed because they are two in one flesh, and in the man is signified likewise the woman. (early church father Cyprian, circa 248 AD. ACCS).

Even though some ancient Christians believed that this passage was teaching about a special place in God’s kingdom for literal virgins, I think the language of “defiling” shows that it is unlikely that we are to understand this literally. Instead, it is a figure of speech. If so, however, what does it mean?

I think the best understanding of this is that it refers to “virginity” in spiritual matters. All throughout the Bible, when the Lord talks about idolatry, he uses the metaphor of sexual unfaithfulness to describe the spiritual unfaithfulness inherent in worshipping other things.

10They will eat but not be satisfied; they will be promiscuous but not multiply. For they have abandoned their devotion to the LORD.// 11Promiscuity, wine, and new wine take away one’s understanding.// 12My people consult their wooden idols, and their divining rods inform them.// For a spirit of promiscuity leads them astray; they act promiscuously in disobedience to their God.// 13They sacrifice on the mountaintops, and they burn offerings on the hills, and under oaks, poplars, and terebinths, because their shade is pleasant.// And so your daughters act promiscuously and your daughters-in-law commit adultery. (Hos 4:10-13, HCSB)

This is not literal promiscuity – it is describing idol worship. Here are a few more:

7All her carved images will be smashed to pieces; all her wages will be burned in the fire, and I will destroy all her idols. Since she collected the wages of a prostitute, they will be used again for a prostitute. (Mic 1:7, HCSB)

 6In the days of King Josiah the LORD asked me, “Have you seen what unfaithful Israel has done? She has ascended every high hill and gone under every green tree to prostitute herself there. 7I thought: After she has done all these things, she will return to Me. But she didn’t return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it. 8I observed that it was because unfaithful Israel had committed adultery that I had sent her away and had given her a certificate of divorce. Nevertheless, her treacherous sister Judah was not afraid but also went and prostituted herself. 9Indifferent to her prostitution, she defiled the land and committed adultery with stones and trees. 10Yet in spite of all this, her treacherous sister Judah didn’t return to Me with all her heart — only in pretense.” This is the LORD’s declaration. (Jer 3:6-10, HCSB)

Once again these verses are talking about the fact that Israel and Judah worshipped other gods, and did not seek the Lord. Therefore, I think in our passage on Revelation, verse 4 is all about remaining spiritually pure. The 144,000 are those who have not worshipped other gods, who have not defiled themselves by allowing anything to displace God as God in their lives. One ancient Christian commentator put it like this:

In this passage we do not understand the “virgins” to be only those who are chaste in the body. Rather, we have especially in mind the whole church that holds to the pure faith, as the apostle says, “I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ.” For she is not corrupted by any adulterous commixture of the heretics, nor to the end of its life is it hindered by the alluring yet deadly desires of this world.

….Truly, dearest brothers, of what profit is it for a man or woman, whether cleric or monk or religious, if bodily virginity is preserved, as long as purity of the heart is violated by evil desires? (Caesarius of Arles , 470-543. ACCS )

The point then, is that the 144,000 are those who put God first in their lives and let nothing take His place. They remain steadfastly faithful to God’s revealed word, which is the Bible.

Now, let’s back up and put this all in context. This is the fifth part of the section I call “The Seven significant signs.” The whole section is about the underlying spiritual reality that is affecting the events of our physical lives. It is here to remind the first readers, and us, that the things that we experience every day are also part of an underlying spiritual reality that we cannot see, but is nonetheless very real.

Up until now, we have seen the negative side of that spiritual reality: we learned that there is spiritual war going on. The devil has already lost to God, and is now, out of spite, trying to destroy those who follow Jesus. But there is more to that spiritual reality than just the negative. Our passage today is showing us that there is also a positive spiritual reality that should impact our lives here and now. And so, we have the picture of the 144,000 worshiping God and being with the lamb wherever he goes. Revelation has given us this message before, but it must be important, since this text reiterates it: the victory is already won.

The text says that these are the “firstfruits for God and the Lamb.” I think John’s first readers would have thought immediately of those who had been put to death for their defiance of the culture in following Jesus. We’ve just come from a very dark section, where it says:

10 If anyone is destined for captivity, into captivity he goes. If anyone is to be killed with a sword, with a sword he will be killed. This demands the perseverance and faith of the saints. (HCSB. Revelation 13:10)

But now we have a picture of what comes after that: after “the sword” you join the firstfruits for God and the Lamb. Their battle is over, they have been delivered. Even as the devil thrashes around here on earth, the great victory celebration has already begun in heaven. This text is here to remind us that the eternal reward for remaining faithful to Jesus is far greater than the cost of discomfort and persecution here on earth. The writer of Hebrews had a similar idea when he wrote:

1Therefore, since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily ensnares us. Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us, 2keeping our eyes on Jesus, the source and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that lay before Him endured a cross and despised the shame and has sat down at the right hand of God’s throne. 3For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, so that you won’t grow weary and lose heart. (Heb 12:1-3, HCSB)

In fact, I would say that this part of John’s vision is a colorful, graphic way of saying the same thing.

So what do we do with all this? First, the faithfulness metaphor. I know for myself that it is easy to lose sight of what is at stake in being faithful to God, and to his Word. The culture to which John wrote was not asking Christians to completely deny Jesus; they simply wanted Christians to agree with the rest of the culture about certain things, and to show their allegiance to the culture by just a small act of worship. It would have been easy for those first Christians to think, “Is it really such a big deal?” But the picture here shows that that is like asking, “Is it really such a big deal if I’m unfaithful to my spouse?”

Now I want to make sure and cover all the bases. Maybe, at some point you have compromised, and you haven’t been faithful to God. Maybe you have allowed other things to come in between you and him. Jesus died to make it right between you and God. But you do have to receive that in faith, and if you receive that in faith, it will change you. If trusting in Jesus doesn’t change your behavior, then you aren’t really trusting in him. But when you do truly trust in him, your sins are entirely removed and forgiven, and, in Jesus, it is as if you had never failed. You can remain spiritually pure, because of Jesus. Also, as we follow him, we learn to want to be pure. The Holy Spirit grows that desire in our hearts.

Second, the victory metaphor. I’m going to speculate a little bit here; please don’t take this next piece as if it is written in stone. But sometimes, I like to picture time as a book. Inside the book, the characters move from one page to the next. They can’t turn the pages back; they move through time in a linear fashion. Now imagine, that when the book has been completely read, the characters get to come out of the book and stand outside, where a reader of the book would be. Now, all of the book – past, present, future – is in the book, and the characters are outside of that place. Their lives are in the book, proceeding in a linear fashion from one page to the next. And yet now they also are outside of the book and what is happening to them outside of the book is going on “at the same time,” so to speak, as they go through the book from page to page. So while they are in the book facing trials and struggles, they are, also, “at the same time,” outside of the book celebrating with friends and family.

I wonder sometimes if that is a little bit like the spiritual reality. We live inside time; “inside the book.” But spiritual reality is outside the book. In that spiritual reality we are there, already entirely saved. We are already holy and blameless (Ephesians 1:6); already seated with Christ in the heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6); we have already been raised to life with Christ, and our lives are hidden with him (Colossian 3:1-2). We are already singing the song of the redeemed, already walking with the Lamb wherever he goes (our text for today).

When we truly believe this, it changes everything. Yes, we still have to finish the book, page by page. And yet, the end is already written. This why the Apostle Paul could say:

16 Therefore we do not give up. Even though our outer person is being destroyed, our inner person is being renewed day by day. 17 For our momentary light affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory. 18 So we do not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (HCSB, 2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

I want us to learn to say the same thing. Let the Spirit speak to you today!

Revelation #12 The little, no-account Church

opendoor 2

This is a gracious word to the humble, faithful believer who feels small; perhaps even illegitimate or worthless. Jesus sees your faithfulness to his word. He sees your endurance. You are honored, legitimate and precious in His eyes. Nothing can prevent you from walking through the door He opens for you.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download Revelation Part 12

Revelation #12. Revelation 3:7-13

The church at Philadelphia was in a situation quite similar to that at Smyrna. It was apparently a small congregation, which had “little strength;” a literal translation is something like “micro-power.” As in Smyrna, the believers in Philadelphia were faithful, and Jesus has no rebuke for them – only praise and approval. Also, like the Smyrnan congregation, the Philadelphian believers were persecuted by the Jewish community, who accused them to the Roman authorities and took great pains to distinguish between the Christians and “real Jews.” In fact, Smyrna and Philadelphia are so similar that I began to ask myself why Jesus would include messages to both of the churches. Surely the message to one is sufficient for the other one too. The answer is, of course, obvious. He spoke the Christians in Philadelphia because he cares about them too. This re-affirms the idea that the Bible is not only a book from which we derive principles (although it does offer us wonderful principles). The Bible is also God’s personal message to individual Christians. Rather than lumping them in with a bigger church, Jesus speaks directly to the believers in Philadelphia, assuring them that he remembers, he sees and he cares. God is not simply a “mass communicator” – he created our individuality, and he cares about us as individuals.

To fully appreciate the promises given to the Christians at Philadelphia, we have to remember their situation. They were a small congregation, and perhaps “I know you have little strength,” (v.8) refers to the fact that they were not influential or well regarded in their city. Christianity was not in any sense a “major religion” in the eyes of the world in A.D. 90. In fact, it was not recognized as a religion at all. The Jews, who were following one of the “recognized religions,” were telling them that they were illegitimate, deriding them as a cult and insisting that they would be cut off by the Holy God of Israel.

From other New Testament passages, we can guess that the Jews in Philadelphia despised the Christian Church for including Gentiles (non-Jews). During New Testament times Jews insisted that Gentiles could not be holy, and even Jews who didn’t follow ceremonial laws would be considered unclean. In present times of course, Christians can simply and confidently disagree, and get on with their lives. But in those days it was a precarious and uncertain step to become a Christian. It had no external legitimacy (except perhaps for the miracles that were performed by the power of the Holy Spirit). No one would say to a Christian, “sure, your religion is valid.” In the eyes of the world, Christianity was a cult.

Jesus therefore begins his message to the church in Philadelphia with a re-affirmation of his (and therefore their) legitimacy: “The words of him who is holy and true, who hold the key of David. (v.7).” Just that sentence alone would have provided a world of comfort to those in Philadelphia. Jesus is trustworthy. The legitimacy of the Christian faith is based in reality – in truth. He is also holy and he imparts that holiness to his followers. They don’t need the false holiness of the Jews, who called them unholy. They are not a cult, and they will not be cut off from the Holy God of Israel. “The key of David” refers to God’s promise to King David that he would make one of David’s descendants a king forever. The Jews were probably posturing that they alone had the key to salvation (following the law in the Jewish tradition) whereas Jesus reminds his followers that He is the key to salvation. He is in fact, the one who was promised – he is the descendant of David whose kingdom shall never end. In essence, Jesus is saying to the Christian in Philadelphia: “you aren’t the ones who have missed out – they are the ones who missed it. You have the true descendant of David.”

Once again (as in Smyrna), Jesus says that the tormentors of the Christians who claim to be real Jews are not. This is a reference to the concept given in Romans 2:29

28For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, and true circumcision is not something visible in the flesh. 29On the contrary, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is of the heart — by the Spirit, not the letter. That man’s praise is not from men but from God. (Rom 2:28-29, HCSB)

Jews classified themselves as “Abraham’s seed” (that is, descendants of Abraham). Paul writes:

“If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:29)

So Jesus is affirming here to the Christians in Philadelphia that they are legitimately the people of God, “real Jews,” if you will, because of their faith in him. The others who do not put their trust in Jesus are not actually true Jews, in the spiritual sense.

Jesus also says he is the one who opens, and no one can shut; he is the one who shuts, and no one can open. I think this probably refers, first and foremost, to salvation. But I think it includes all of the benefits of salvation, also: love, peace, joy, grace, honor. He is saying that no one can keep these faithful believers out of his kingdom. No one can prevent them from receiving what gives. No one can take away their opportunity to receive from Him.

In verse 8, he says specifically: “See I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut (v. 8).” Again, I think he is saying, “Don’t let anyone take away your peace. No one can keep you out. No one can prevent you from receiving from me. No one can call you illegitimate.”

Jesus says he knows that they have “kept” his word. This is what makes them one of only two churches that he does not criticize. They haven’t had the strength to do much else. They are small, no-account. But they’ve kept his word. And so he is keeping a door open for them. This is one reason I am so passionate about learning the Bible, and teaching others to learn it for themselves. The word “kept” means to guard, and to watch over. They have been faithful to keep it by obeying it, and faithful also to guard the word, and keep it from being distorted and misused. Their faithfulness has not resulted in a large powerful church, but they have done what Jesus wanted them to do.

The church at Philadelphia has also kept Jesus’ command to endure. Endurance is one of the major themes of Revelation, and in fact of the entire New Testament. We need to stick with Jesus, stick with His word even when we suffer. We need to hang in there when it is boring, hard, painful, discouraging, or tough in any way. We need to be willing to make difficult choices in favor of Jesus, and His Word. We need to be in it for the long haul. The church at Philadelphia endured in this way, and Jesus praises them for it.

Jesus promises the faithful in Philly that he “will keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth (v.19).” This is the same word, “keep,” that means to guard, or to watch over. Unfortunately, the word “from” is a bit tricky in Greek. It could mean that Jesus will keep them “right through” the trial (in the midst of it) or that he will keep them from undergoing the trial at all. Also, the word “trial,” in my version is the same Greek word used for testing and temptation. It might be that Jesus is saying, “I don’t need to test your faith any further. I don’t need to keep trying to see if it is genuine. I know you have the real thing.

This might be a good place to point out that there is very little, if any, support in the book of Revelation for the idea that Christians will be “raptured” out the world before anything seriously bad happens during the end times. In fact, this very verse (3:10) with its tricky Greek words is about as close as Revelation comes to suggesting such a thing, and it is a promise only to small number of believers, not to all of the Christians to whom Revelation was written. There is much more support, both from this verse and others, for the idea that Jesus will take care of his own who are living on earth during the tumultuous times preceding his return. The sealing of the 144,000 in Revelation 7 seems to be an expression of this idea. In any case, it is clear that while God’s judgment may not touch Christians, ungodly rulers and authorities will continue to persecute and kill them. If this were not so we would have great difficulty explaining the circumstances of Christians who have suffered unspeakably from the time of Jesus until now. The most Biblical theme about suffering is not that God removes it, but rather that he walks through it with us (see Isaiah 43:1-5; Romans 5:3-5; James 1:2-4; John 15:18-21; John 16:33).

Jesus is recklessly generous with his promises to the church in Philadelphia. “I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have so that no one will take your crown.” Jesus’ promise to come soon is of course, immensely comforting, and I want us to note that he takes it for granted that these believers already have a “crown.” He tells them to hold on to it, to seize it with both hands. Don’t let anything interfere with it.

He also promises to the over-comer that he/she will be a “pillar in the temple of my God.” Since Revelation actually tells us that there will be no need for a temple in heaven (Revelation 21:22) this has to be figurative language. The “temple” stands for God’s presence with his people. The one who overcomes in this life will never leave the presence of God. God’s name will be written on him/her and also the name of Jesus and of the New Jerusalem. They will belong fully to God.

This is a kind and gracious word to the faithful and humble. You don’t have to be big, you don’t need to be accomplishing great things. The Lord sees your situation. You have limited strength, but you’ve kept His word. No one can keep you out of His kingdom. No one can shut the door he opens for you. He will make those who scorn you right now be humbled before you later.

For application, I want to simply share how all this strikes me. Perhaps that will help you hear what the Spirit is saying to you also.

At this point in my life, I take a great deal of comfort from these verses. In fact, I feel a little bit like the church at Philadelphia. All of our house churches are small, and our ministry organization is small. We have little power. Sometimes, we even look illegitimate. Lately, my health struggles have made my world even smaller. Sometimes, I feel weak. But we have kept God’s word. We have been faithful to it as best as we are able. That has not resulted in growth or increasing power. Here’s a paraphrase of what I hear the Lord saying to me, and to our little churches:

“I know your situation. I know are considered small, weak and of no account. But you have done what is most important: you’ve held on to my Word, and not compromised it. You’ve guarded it from being undermined. You have also kept my command to endure, and I’m proud of you. The world doesn’t regard you, but I do. The world doesn’t know if you are legitimate, but in my eyes, you are. I call you legitimate. Your faith is the real thing. You may be weak, but I have opened a door for you – you don’t have to open it, or hold it open, yourself. Nothing, and no one, can prevent you from receiving what I give you. No one keep you out of my kingdom, out of my grace and love. You will be a pillar that supports my kingdom. I call you mine. I will always be with you.”

PREPARE FOR THE END OF THE WORLD!

end-of-the-world

Jesus tells us how to prepare for the end of the world. It may not be what you think. 

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
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.