There are calls for change in the church all around us. My mailbox is filled with them, as is my inbox. “Get busy feeding the hungry!” cries one organization. “Stop shouting at the protestors against your moral agenda and show love!” says another. We seem to be in a time when direction and agenda are shifting. It seems practical that I would sort these calls out and maybe dump the ones that are superfluous, but I am not going to do that. Instead, I want to go back to the Master’s voice on the hillside of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, and ask those who care to listen to His voice to consider the call Jesus gave us as His return draws near.
Before we look at those words in Matthew, I want to be clear. I understand the Bible to teach two events in the future that involve a “return” of sorts by Jesus. The first, I believe is supported well in a careful study of 1 Thessalonian 4:13-18, and is commonly called the “rapture” of the church. It is a specific event in which Jesus will return in the clouds, and the dead in Christ (that is, believers who are with Him in spirit but have been separated by earthly, physical death from their bodies that remained on earth) will be re-embodied. Following that, believers alive on the earth at that time will be taken from the earth. I understand the Bible to teach that event is imminent – that is it could come at any time.
Further, I understand the Bible to teach that Jesus will return in a second event TO THE EARTH in a subsequent time after a period of Great Tribulation to rescue the estranged wife of His Father – Israel. That event is about Jewish rescue, and regards Jews that right now show little or no interest in Jesus – but will again revive hopes of a Rescuer when the troubles surround them and antisemitism pushes them to desperation (Revelation 19:11ff). I believe the events described by Jesus’ sermon on the Hill of Olivet regard the latter return – because of the clear regard of the message to Jews and because the question was posed by Jewish followers about their own people. This isn’t the only time they asked about this. Later, after the Resurrection of Jesus, Acts 1 records these words:
Acts 1:6 “So when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; 8but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.“
Notice the attentiveness of the Jewish followers of Jesus to the needs of Israel. They were Jewish, and their end times view wasn’t about the church, because they didn’t see a Gentile outreach that was on the horizon. Jesus told them to focus on what was about to happen and stop worrying about the distant horizon. Here then is a question: “Why should we be any different? Why should believers care about the end times when there is so much to care for in the world today?” Some believers will go so far as to say it is just not relevant in a world in need of the Gospel. They sound pious and caring, but there is more to it than loving and sharing… we have another facet to our mission. The answer to the question is simple, and it is our key principle for this lesson..
Key Principle: Obedient believers were told by the Master to be attentive to the signs concerning the future, and to be clarion voices of those signs when training other believers.
If that is true, then the issue is as much obedience as some prophetic curiosity about the developing signs of our day.
Go back to the message that began in Matthew 24 for a few moments. Six events are marked out as signs of the end by Jesus in that passage:
• The time Jesus is speaking about includes the destruction of the Temple: but about two other events as well. Included in the passage are the return of Jesus AND the end of the age. The point is that it isn’t just about a building and its destruction – but a terminal point on the timeline of history when Jesus will make all things right (24:1-3).
• Troubles will increase and be pronounced before the end. Such troubles will include a defection of people from the truth, increased fear because of a news network turned to a rumor machine (unreliable reporting and fear mongering), ethnic strife and armed national conflicts, as well as an increasing sense of uncontrollable natural disasters (24:4-7). These are the end, but signs of its nearness (24:8).
• Unthinkable cruelty and discrimination will fall on the Jewish people, with deception and lies that will routinely pass as truth in the public square. Natural bonds of decency and care will fall away, as heartless cruelty will become so commonplace on the news, people will be desensitized to the sight of extreme cruelty (24:9-12).
• The Gospel will continue to move forward, even as people suffer for adherence to it (24:13-14).
• Specific overtures will be made in Jerusalem, where a much warned symbol of man’s rebellion will be established in the place of God’s Temple. Believing Jews will see it as a time to run and hide underground, as an even greater and focused time of trouble will thrash them. Some will beckon them to come out of their hiding to follow a rescuer – but it will be a mere deception (24:15-28).
• Around the world life will be disrupted. Nature will not cooperate and cosmic events will terrorize people. This all precedes the return of the Savior (24:29-31). His return will be marked by signs, and those who follow Him should be trained to see them and recognize them (24:29-35). They shouldn’t think they control the events, for that is the Father’s work – but they should learn that it will come when most people think it I was just a myth from long ago (24:36-41).
After that point in the message, Jesus closed in on the key command of the message in Matthew 24:42:
Matthew 24:42 “Therefore be on the alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming.”
The command was “grēgoreúō” or literally, “Stay awake!” This was the word for those on guard duty around a garrison. Those passing through the time of trouble will have their focus on survival, and be tempted to drift from focusing on the coming Savior.
Why would people fall asleep on the watch? I can think of several reasons:
• First, we are called to be concerned with so many things that it is difficult to really focus on any of them all that well. A Christian Pastor has been held in Iran since the summer of 2012 and on January 27, 2013, he was sentenced to eight years in prison, “reportedly on charges of undermining national security” because of Bible study meetings in Christian homes. We are outraged that our government can meet about all kinds of agreements with Iranian officials, but can’t find a way to bring one of our own fellow citizens home. We pray. We write letters, but we don’t seem to affect the outcome. We have to stay vigilant, but it is hard. I cannot keep up with the Supreme Court, the State Department, the President’s initiatives, the mandates for schools and the next big sin agenda in the street – not if I want to actually live my life unhooked from media. Do you think it will get to be LESS in the days ahead?
• Second, the sign of Jesus’ coming includes so many things that are hard to understand. Are we experiencing more natural disasters, or do we just know more because of global news today? Are there more wars, or does it just seem like there are?
I guess I can understand why believers during the Tribulation would have difficulty watching for Jesus by these signs – since we have trouble listening for the trumpet in all the noise of our day. If it is hard to let peace reign in our day – how much harder will it be in the days of greater persecution and tribulation of the future? Nevertheless, the command of our Master is both simple and straightforward – believers are to remain vigilant. We must fall asleep, and neither should they – when their time comes. The command may be for them, but it certainly applies to us as well.
Jesus made the point that His arrival would be largely unexpected, like someone who “breaks in” to the world, despite the spread of the message.
Matthew 24:43 “But be sure of this, that if the head of the house had known at what time of the night the thief was coming, he would have been on the alert and would not have allowed his house to be broken into. 44 “For this reason you also must be ready; for the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not think [He will].”
Let me ask a simple question you may not have thought much about: “How can that happen?” How is it possible that after two thousand years of church history and the grand infusing of the Gospel accounts into the history of western world culture that people could become so virtually ignorant of the words of Jesus that His very return will be unexpected?
The answer is clear. As the Gospel continues to spread to individuals, it will largely be deliberately ignored in the media and culture. People will be transformed by Jesus in the future, but the whole thing will be well off of the radar of any media feature, any “hype” by the culture, and any endorsement by those in power. In other words, our faith will lose its prominence before our Savior comes to the earth. It will largely lose its voice as time moves forward. That is inherent in the words of Jesus, and later the words of the Apostles. The term “last days” isn’t followed in any Epistle with a series of happy things for believers. It is followed by falling away, by denial of truth, but turning from light into darkness.
Jesus told His followers that Jews in the Great Tribulation won’t be expecting Him – even many of those who claim to follow Him. Jesus paused His teaching, and decided not to give more information about the nature of His return. Instead, He offered more of the description of that problem (not anticipating His coming) as well as to offer some counsel to those who will one day need it, in three stories and a closing admonition. Because it isn’t TO you, don’t ignore it. It holds information FOR you.
Consider for a moment that in order to really understand the teaching, we have to learn something about how near eastern teachers related truth. We aren’t brought up in the same conditions, and don’t learn the same way they did in the time and place Jesus was teaching these truths.
Imagine that you grew up in a village long ago. There was no internet, no television, no computer and no video gaming systems. Night fell and people ate an evening meal, cleaned up, and sat around a small fire and listened to stories. These stories passed values to children, and often provided laughter and times of serious reflection for the hearers. The stories were told in circles, and they weren’t economical in timing – there were not commercial breaks and one hour resolutions. Often a story began in one night, but carried to another. Many times the story built in scene after scene – each one providing more detail than the one before it. Jesus’ teaching in stories was often like that. He offered a proposition, and then followed it with several stories that basically said the same thing – but each story added more flavor and texture, with details that illustrated something different about the proposition. Let me illustrate that in this passage…
The proposition was that believers were to stay awake, watch for His coming and recognize that He would return though few would believe it and even fewer would prepare for it. The three stories added to the idea details that are important:
The first story was about the householder who was rewarded (Matthew 24:45-51).
Jesus began with a familiar person on the streets of Jerusalem – the householder slave. This indentured servant had a position of management over the affairs of his owner and was a fixture in society at the time. Jesus said:
Matthew 24:45 “Who then is the faithful and sensible slave whom his master put in charge of his household to give them their food at the proper time? 46 “Blessed is that slave whom his master finds so doing when he comes. 47 “Truly I say to you that he will put him in charge of all his possessions.
Notice in this story that faithfulness was an ascribed character trait to the one who was ATTENTIVE to the TIME. A good householder was planning for the next meal to be ready when it was needed. Without refrigeration and in a time of abundant sickness, it was important to time the preparation well. Jesus continued…
Matthew 24:48 “But if that evil slave says in his heart, My master is not coming for a long time,’ 49 and begins to beat his fellow slaves and eat and drink with drunkards; 50 the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect [him] and at an hour which he does not know, 51 and will cut him in pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
The worthless servant was inattentive and put off preparation for the arrival of the master. Look at the three descriptions of that servant:
• First, he dismissed the soon arrival of the master.
• Second, he mistreated the fellow slaves of the master – because he could get away with it.
• Third, he overindulged – eating and drinking with the careless.
His end was harsh. He didn’t watch, he didn’t prepare and his didn’t CARE. What seems clear from the detail here is that Jesus didn’t only expect His people to WATCH for His coming – He demanded they WARN of His coming for those who needed to know. The issue was first trust in His promises.
Here is the point: Jesus is returning – He promised that. Those who take Him seriously prepare. Those who do not, gloss over His words and pick from them some beliefs – calling that “Christian” – but it isn’t. It isn’t what God is calling for. It is a made up version of serving.
The second story is about ten waiting brides (Matthew 25:1-12)
Jesus offered a second story to add even more detail to His command to stay awake and watchful…
Matthew 25:1 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be comparable to ten virgins, who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2 “Five of them were foolish, and five were prudent. 3 “For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, 4 but the prudent took oil in flasks along with their lamps.
The story reveals that all the prospective brides were called to be at the same meeting place, and some were prepared for a DELAY of the arrival with specific preparation of more oil. Don’t get lost in the detail. I don’t believe the oil stood for something, and the roadway for something else. Remember, disciples were listening to the big truth in the story – not everyone who was called to meet the groom sufficiently prepared if the groom wasn’t there when they originally anticipated. Jesus continued…
Matthew 25:5 “Now while the bridegroom was delaying, they all got drowsy and [began] to sleep. 6 “But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet [him].’ 7 “Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps.
Notice that NONE of them anticipated a delay in the arrival of the groom’s party. Notice also that there was only a short time between the call for the moment of arrival and the actual arrival. The conversation was related like this:
Matthew 25:8 “The foolish said to the prudent, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 “But the prudent answered, ‘No, there will not be enough for us and you [too]; go instead to the dealers and buy [some] for yourselves.’ 10 “And while they were going away to make the purchase, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding feast; and the door was shut. 11 “Later the other virgins also came, saying, Lord, lord, open up for us.’ 12 “But he answered, ‘Truly I say to you, I do not know you.’
Remember, this wasn’t a lesson in sharing oil – it was a call to preparation. Jesus wasn’t endorsing the refusal of the prepared to help those who were not. There was no real reason they couldn’t offer some oil, since they were now with the groom. That wasn’t the point, and “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing!” Some weren’t prepared. Some weren’t watching. All fell asleep, because NO ONE anticipated a delay (even though some were ready in the event one occurred). Jesus finished with His original caution:
Matthew 25:13 “Be on the alert then, for you do not know the day nor the hour.
The point was this: Prepare extra supplies for a delay. You won’t see My coming because you will eventually be lulled to sleep – but you can prepare ahead of time to have sufficient resources to make it through. If you give up, you won’t be watching for me – but get caught up finding things you think you need instead. You will prove unfaithful and unbelieving to my word.
A third story added yet a bit more…
The third story was a parable of a Master investing in his servants (Matthew 25:14-30)
Jesus expected them to prepare for His coming with things He provided them. He said:
Matthew 25:14 “For [it is] just like a man [about] to go on a journey, who called his own slaves and entrusted his possessions to them. 15 “To one he gave five talents, to another, two, and to another, one, each according to his own ability; and he went on his journey.
The land-owner invested wealth in his servants and then left. The wealth was according to his perception of their ability. Look what each did:
Matthew 25:16 “Immediately the one who had received the five talents went and traded with them, and gained five more talents. 17 “In the same manner the one who [had received] the two [talents] gained two more. 18 “But he who received the one [talent] went away, and dug [a hole] in the ground and hid his master’s money.
It is clear in the story that the master provided all they needed to prepare an increase – but only two of the three actually were proper stewards of the investment as it was intended, and grew the wealth. He continued…
Matthew 25:19 “Now after a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 “The one who had received the five talents came up and brought five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you entrusted five talents to me. See, I have gained five more talents.’ 21 “His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 “Also the one who [had received] the two talents came up and said, ‘Master, you entrusted two talents to me. See, I have gained two more talents.’ 23 “His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’
Here Jesus stopped and made the point that those who prepared for the return of the master were rewarded. The master wasn’t more pleased with one than the other – both did what they could do with what they were given. Both were faithful. Then the third one came before the master, and the “theme music” in the background of the scene changed…
Matthew 25:24 “And the one also who had received the one talent came up and said, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you scattered no [seed]. 25 And I was afraid, and went away and hid your talent in the ground. See, you have what is yours.’ 26 “But his master answered and said to him, ‘You wicked, lazy slave, you knew that I reap where I did not sow and gather where I scattered no [seed]. 27 Then you ought to have put my money in the bank, and on my arrival I would have received my [money] back with interest. 28 Therefore take away the talent from him, and give it to the one who has the ten talents.’
The man described his deed, but he described also his reason. This is new information. The man thought his master UNDESERVING of any additional gain, and thought him to be HARSH if he expected the servant to steward his things in his absence. He thought his master shouldn’t expect him to work at gaining things that were not his own.
Do you know people like this? Do you know people who reason that Jesus’ words to “deny yourself and take up your cross daily” are fundamentally unfair and unnecessary to the Christian life? I do. I keep reading about a Jesus that gives us everything we want but expects little from us. That is non-sense for us, and will be for the Tribulation believer as well. Let’s be clear: Jesus has every right to invest in me time, talent and treasure and expect I would work hard for a return on His investment. Jesus spoke of the servant’s heart as wicked, lazy and illogical. He didn’t even do the simplest things, because he didn’t really believe the master had the right to gain from his labors. He was so busy evaluating the master’s position, he wasn’t fulfilling his position.
When Christians redefine Jesus’ right to have all of them, they do exactly what this wicked and lazy servant did.
Let’s say it the way the Bible does: My God is Supreme. He has the right to tell me when and where to live. He has the right to define the moral terms of my life. He has the right to assign my race and my gender. He has the right to call me to live in a time of prosperity, but also a time of adversity. He has the right to assign me an easy path or a hard one. We need to stop trying to evaluate His rights, and become the servants He told us to become…period. Failure to do so belies our true belief – that He is to serve US, and not we HIM.
Matthew 25:29 “For to everyone who has, [more] shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away. 30 “Throw out the worthless slave into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Let’s be as certain as possible we understand the saying: Servants who won’t serve are useless. They aren’t real. They have the title, but not the heart.
Jesus made the point that preparation was an essential measure of a good servant. He made a second point that delay should be anticipated and a good servant will keep a watchful eye on supplies before the time. Finally, He made the point that servants that don’t prepare do what they do for a reason – they don’t really believe the Master has the right to ask them to do it.
Here is the truth: the Master has the right to tell me what to do. It isn’t just theology – it shows up in daily practice. Look at how Jesus ended the message…
The final part of the message was a promise about the way judgment will be meted out in the end (Matthew 25:31-46)
A time of judgment will come! Not everyone will get a prize, but everyone will know where they stand with the Master of all:
Matthew 25:31 “But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. 32 “All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; 33 and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left. 34 “Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
The basis of judgment for the nations at the return of Jesus to the earth will be this: “How did you treat my people?” In the time stamped context, that refers specifically to the treatment of those believers during the period of the Great Tribulation.
Matthew 25:35 For I was hungry, and you gave Me [something] to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me [something] to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; 36 naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ …40″The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, [even] the least [of them], you did it to Me.’
Before you skip to the detail of the blessing, look carefully at the privations that were assigned to those who were GOD’S PEOPLE. They were the hungry, thirsty, naked and sick strangers and jailed ones. Let that sink in for a moment…
Matthew 25:41 “Then He will also say to those on His left, Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels …45 “Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ 46 “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
For the one that argues against ultimate judgment in Scripture, there is much text you will simply need to ignore to make your point. God doesn’t play games. He made clear that judgment will come, and how God’s people are treated will be at the center of the standard of that judgment. Woe to the nation who abuses the people of God in mockery, in punishment and in cruelty. The judge will return.
Obedient believers were told by the Master to be attentive to the signs concerning the future, and to be clarion voices of those signs when training other believers.
The King is coming. The first time He came, He came as but a baby – unnoticed by those all about. The next time He comes it will be in the clouds to take His church away. But one day.. one day He will come in the vestments and robes of the Holy One of Heaven. Every eye will see Him. Words fail the description, but two song writers (Bill and Gloria Gaither) tried to capture the feeling of the bruised and broken people of God when the Rescuer comes for them…
“The Market place is empty – No more traffic in the streets. All the builders tools are silent – No more time to harvest wheat. Busy housewives cease their labors – in the courtroom no debate. Work on earth has been suspended – As the King comes thro’ the gate.
The King is coming, The King is coming, I just heard the trumpet sounding! – And now his face I see! The King is coming, The King is coming, Praise God He’s coming for me!
Happy faces line the hallway – Those whose lives have been redeemed. Broken homes that He has mended – Those from prison He has freed. Little children and the aged – Hand in hand stand all aglow. Those who were crippled, broken, ruined – Clad in garments white as snow.
I can hear the chariots rumble! I can see the marching throng! And the flurry of God’s trumpets – spell the end of sin and wrong. Regal robes are now unfolding. Heaven’s grandstands all in place. Heaven’s choir is now assembled – Start to sing Amazing Grace! The Kind is coming, the King is coming, Praise God He’s coming for me.”