Tuesday, September 18, 2018

25. Future Cast

According to Matthew”
A study of the Gospel of Matthew
Part 25: Future Cast

An underlying story behind the whole of Matthew's gospel is the clash of the kingdoms of the earth and the kingdom of heaven. This is a theme that keeps repeating. The values of the world are not the values of God. The people who matter in the world are not given the same status in the kingdom of God. The humble are lifted up, the 'little ones' treated as examples of faith and trust. In the last chapter we heard how Jesus lambasted the Pharisees for their religious hypocrisy. They are exposed as being far from God and more concerned with promoting themselves than they are concerned with promoting the values of God's kingdom... love, mercy, grace, justice and peace.

All of this talking about the Kingdom has the disciples asking some deep questions. If the kingdom they were expecting was never going to happen, then when would the kingdom Jesus was talking about come into being? How was the whole thing going to work out?

Matthew 24 and 25 are difficult chapters as they concern future events. Jesus has set the ball rolling by speaking about the downfall of the temple. But that's just one event among many that the disciples are interested in finding out about. As they sit on the Mount of Olives they ask Him about times, signs and how it's all going to end. In Matthew chapter 24, what may have been a much lengthier conversation, is all lumped together, which does present a challenge to unravel!

Jesus speaks to them;
  • about things that would happen quite soon,
  • about things that would happen over the years as His Kingdom grew in the world,
  • of things that would happen at the end of time.
Lest we think that Matthew was being deliberately obscure, he is actually staying within the prophetic tradition. This form of prophetic speaking is just the sort of thing the Old Testament prophets got up to.

For instance: Jeremiah.

In Chapter 28: 16-17, Jeremiah talks about events that would happen almost immediately.

Therefore this is what the LORD says: 'I am about to remove you from the face of the earth. This very year you are going to die, because you have preached rebellion against the LORD.'" In the seventh month of that same year, Hananiah the prophet died. (Jer 28:16-17 NIV)

In Chapter 31: 1-6, he talks about things that would happen to the Jewish nation in the distant future.

"At that time," declares the LORD, "I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they will be my people." This is what the LORD says: "The people who survive the sword will find favor in the wilderness; I will come to give rest to Israel." The LORD appeared to us in the past, saying: "I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness. I will build you up again, and you, Virgin Israel, will be rebuilt. Again you will take up your timbrels and go out to dance with the joyful. Again you will plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria; the farmers will plant them and enjoy their fruit. There will be a day when watchmen cry out on the hills of Ephraim, 'Come, let us go up to Zion, to the LORD our God.'" (Jer 31:1-6 NIV)

In the same chapter, verses 31-34, he talks of a time beyond that, when God would enter into “A New Covenant” with His people.

"The days are coming," declares the LORD, "when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them, " declares the LORD. "This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time," declares the LORD. "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, 'Know the LORD,' because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest," declares the LORD. "For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more." (Jer 31:31-34 NIV)

The New Testament writers acknowledge they have difficulty understanding these things!

Peter (1 Peter 1 10-12) talks of “things even the angels would like to understand”. Of how the prophets themselves struggled over times and circumstances. When in 2 Peter 3: 8-11 he speaks of the “Promise of the Lord’s Coming” he reminds his readers “There is no difference in the Lord’s sight between one day and a thousand years. “ To speculate about exact dates and times was a futile pursuit.

The point of prophecy wasn’t to tell the future. It was rather to encourage people along the lines of: look, all sorts of mind-boggling things are going to take place, and they’ll happen something like this, but don’t worry. Live your lives in the knowledge that God has the past, the present and the future in control. Be holy and dedicated to God.

Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 writes in vivid pictures of the events of the Lord’s coming. The archangel’s voice, the sound of the trumpet, believers caught up in the cloud, the Lord Himself coming down from heaven. The reason he writes is not to give a literal picture of final events but as he says in verse 18 “encourage one another with these words."

In chapters 24-25 it will be helpful to remember two guidelines:

1. Jesus is speaking in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets, of (i) things about to happen, (ii) about things that would happen throughout the ages, (iii) about things that will happen when the end of the age comes.

2. Jesus is speaking, not to give the disciples a comprehensive picture of the future, but to encourage them in their faith and to empower them in their mission. They were about to face the darkest and most significant events of Jesus’ life, namely his death and crucifixion.

Let us pick up on our chapter at the beginning and read verses 1-3.

Matthew 24:1 Jesus left the temple and was walking away when His disciples came up to Him to call His attention to its buildings. "Do you see all these things?" He asked. "Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down." As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. "Tell us," they said, "when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?"

They are in Jerusalem. Maybe some of them haven't been to Jerusalem before. One of the most impressive things about Jerusalem was the temple. It truly was a magnificent edifice.

When we lived New York we knew it not just as a working city, but also as a tourist destination. Some of those who had grown up around the city forgot how impressive the sights were! They had to put themselves in the shoes of someone, say from West Virginia, who had lived in a rural area of mountains and uncrowded roads and a pace of life that flows along at a steady space. To come into the midst of the city, with the traffic and the skyscrapers and the masses of people, was truly an experience for people from a different background.

I am guessing that's what it was like for country folk from Galilee to be in the midst of Jerusalem. Sights, sounds, smells, sensory experiences that were new and like nothing they had known before. So they are in sightseeing mode as they look around the temple. And as they are walking away they are surprised by their conversation with Jesus. It was hardly believable that the whole temple could be destroyed! The very idea raised in their minds a whole host of questions about the future. When would the kingdom come? And how? And how would they know?

Jesus begins talking about signs that would indicate the end was coming. Read verses 4 - 14

Jesus answered: "Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, 'I am the Messiah,' and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains. "Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.

As you look at these verses you can't help but reflect that they could be applied to almost any decade of the last 2000 years. False prophets, wars, famines, persecutions of the Church, people falling away from their faith. The only unexpected element... that appears to have any time frame upon it.... is that the gospel of the kingdom will be preached to the whole world. 'And then' says Jesus, “the end will come” (verse 14).

Against the backdrop of of this great historical drama the encouragement is given to 'stand firm'. (verse 13). It is worth reflecting that today's doom merchants and end-time proclaimers are doing nothing new in pointing to their interpretations of events as meaning the end is coming. Jesus seems to be saying “That's going to happen!”.

This seems to be a warning not to allow ourselves to be sucked in to such dead end avenues of understanding but rather stand firm in doing what we understand the gospel calls us to, namely worship and service of God as we reach out to others with the love of Christ. Events on the world stage will go their crazy way, in the mean time, just keep doing what you know and let God take care of the rest.

That being said, dramatic events were about to fall upon Jerusalem. Jesus appears to move from generalizations to speaking about some specific events that would take place in the near future of the earliest church. Read verses 15 -22.

"So when you see standing in the holy place 'the abomination that causes desolation,' spoken of through the prophet Daniel--let the reader understand-- then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let no one on the housetop go down to take anything out of the house. Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now--and never to be equaled again. "If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened.

This section begins with Jesus referencing a passage in the book of Daniel 12:11 "From the time that the daily sacrifice is abolished and the abomination that causes desolation is set up, there will be 1,290 days.”

In 167 BC the temple had been desecrated by Antiochus IV Epiphanes. It would be desecrated again as the Romans overthrew the Jewish rebellion of AD70 and set about destroying both city and population. In the face of the invasion many chose to stay and fight rather than flee to the hills. The words of the historian Josephus, writing in his 'Wars of the Jews' provide an interesting counterpoint to Matthew's text.

Josephus speaks of how the inhabitants of Jerusalem lost the battle because the Romans cut off their food supply. “The lanes of the city were full of dead bodies; children and young men wandered about like shadows, swelled by famine... A deadly night seized the city … and everyone died with their eyes fixed on the temple”. He speaks of a mother who turns on her infant child in act of cannibalism. Of how the Romans finally enter the city and find entire homes full of corpses. He records that over a million perish whilst the remaining 97,000 were taken into slavery.

If these were events Jesus could see coming, then it is hardly surprising His advice was to flee to the mountains. He pictures a period of great terror centered upon the temple. Truly an 'abomination that causes desolation'. Part of the horror is the idea that the Kingdom of God has been overthrown by an empire of the ungodly. Yet, terrible as the events of the Fall of Jerusalem were, they were not the end of all things. That would not be until the coming of the 'Son of Man'. Our next passage, verses 23 – 31:

At that time if anyone says to you, 'Look, here is the Messiah!' or, 'There he is!' do not believe it. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you ahead of time. "So if anyone tells you, 'There he is, out in the wilderness,' do not go out; or, 'Here he is, in the inner rooms,' do not believe it. For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather. "Immediately after the distress of those days "'the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.' "Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.

The idea of the people of God as being 'the elect' was referred to in verse 22 and again appears in this passage at 24 and 31. For the sake of the 'elect' the days of trial are shortened. Even the 'elect' are in danger of being deceived by the dazzling acts of false Messiahs. But at the end of the day, God's 'elect' shall be gathered from the four corners of all creation.

The term 'elect' is used to describe those who have responded to the call of Christ... in other words the Christian community. Discipleship, rather like a public election, involves call and response. A person is elected to office. They agree to stand. They are aware that standing for something has both responsibilities and privileges. We are called into Christ's service. It takes a heart response on our part to say 'Yes, I will take the stand for Jesus Christ'. We know that doing so brings many blessings but also lays upon us the constraint of love.

Some theologians associate the idea of 'the elect' with that of 'a remnant'. “Remnant Theology” has been particularly popular with religious groups who suggest that the end of the world is near. The basic notion of such theology is that no matter how bad things get, God always preserves a few 'an elected remnant' to faithfully bear witness to the Kingdom. You can understand how this passage appeals to folk who like 'end-times' theology. It is chock-a-block with apocalyptic imagery... the sun is darkened, stars fall from the sky, the son of man sends a trumpeting angel to gather the faithful few from the corners of the earth.

But as we will see later in this chapter, Matthew does not write to encourage speculation on when the end of the world is coming, but rather to encourage his readers to hold fast to the faith, believing that God has it all under control, no matter what! The Presbyterian Church of Wales brief statement of faith had as it's final sentence “I believe in the coming Kingdom of God”. I liked that! I could commit to that, without having to explain it.

However, for the disciples immediate future, trouble was coming to Jerusalem. As Josephus tells us, in AD70 the city was vanquished. They needed to be aware of the signs of the times. Yet they were also called upon to trust that God's Word could not be silenced and God's Kingdom would continue to grow. Such seems to lay behind our next cluster of verses 32-35;

Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.

The fig tree represented the national fruitfulness of Israel. We saw in a previous chapter how Jesus cursed a fig tree for it's barrenness. In this illustration the fig tree is used in the context of Israel's impending destruction. Trouble was coming, as surely as summer would follow spring!

Jesus tells His disciples 'Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. The only logical interpretation of these words is that He was speaking about the downfall of Jerusalem. William Barclay writes “What Jesus is saying is that these grim warnings of His regarding the doom of Jerusalem will be fulfilled within that very generation – and they were, in fact, fulfilled forty years later” P315

In the light of such a disaster befalling God's holy city there would be ample cause to feel that it was 'game over.' Jesus reassures the disciples that actually, the game had hardly even started. The Kingdom is endued with a cosmic significance as Jesus declares 'Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.'

That's a powerful statement to make in the midst of all this talk of impending destruction, stars falling from the sky, people turning away from God and going after false prophets... all this crazy negative stuff taking place, and here is Jesus telling us that none of it is as significant as the Kingdom teaching that He offers to us. Such is quite an incentive to take bible study seriously!

We also need to bear in mind that Matthew is writing 'after the fact' for the early church. They needed to hear that the Fall of Jerusalem was part of God's plan. They were facing persecution. They needed to hear that God had a future in mind for them!

But did any of this answer the disciples original question? Back in verse 3 "Tell us," they said, "when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?" Having laid before them this confusing mish-mash of events immanent and far off, (in the manner of the Old Testament prophets) we may have expected from Jesus some statement of clarity... a more concise timetable.... If you search the internet or browse religious TV channels you will find no shortage of folks who are quite prepared to offer just that. But this is what Jesus has to say; verses 36-44

"But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark;and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.

Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. "Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him."

I personally find it comforting to understand from scripture that every crackpot who suggests they know the time and hour of Jesus second coming is setting themselves up for a major disappointment. Jesus makes it quite clear that NOBODY.. not even He Himself knew when such things would take place. He insists that there will come a time when everything will change and He will takes His rightful place as Lord of all creation, but as to when... well the only clue He offers is that it will be just like the days of Noah.

From what we know about the days of Noah, it was life as usual for most folk. They weren't expecting a flood. Even Noah wasn't expecting God to tell him to build a big boat. It was completely unanticipated.

Such is totally consistent with the parables of the growth of the Kingdom that Jesus taught back in chapter 13. The Kingdom is a hidden treasure. It is the mustard seed. It is the yeast that leavens the whole loaf. The parable of the 'wheat and the tares' pictures the Kingdom of God as growing up in the midst of and alongside the kingdoms of the world. Who could tell the difference? Well that had to be left to harvest time.

We are given this picture of people side by side, and one being taken and another left behind. This has very little to do with any theology of a 'rapture' or of folk being whizzed off to heaven whilst some have to duke it out on earth. (If you are familiar with the “Left Behind' series of books or movies, you'll know what I'm referring to). It has to do with the way the Kingdom grows in secret, in the midst of the world. Just as redemption came in Noah's day, unexpectedly and surprisingly, so at the end of all things, God alone will be the Harvester.

Jesus compares it to a burglary. A thief doesn't give you notice of when they are going to break into your house. “Hello! I'd like to schedule a break in please. Would Thursday at 7:00 work for you?” Thieves catch you out whilst your guard is down.

Because there are thieves out there we do take precautions. We may not know when they will come. But if they do, we want to be ready. That's the sort of attitude Jesus suggests to have towards the coming Kingdom. 'Be Prepared!” as the scouts used to say.

Carol Howard Merrit has a passage in her book “Reframing Hope” that talks of how we engage with the Kingdom through our hungering and thirsting to see a better world coming into being.

'When a man asks Jesus when the kingdom of God is coming, Jesus responds mysteriously: 'The Kingdom of God isn't coming with things that can be observed. They won't say, “Look here it is' or 'There it is'. The Kingdom of God is among you (….or within you)” “We cannot see God's reign, yet somehow it is among us. It is as if we know the reign of God best through our deep personal and communal longing for it. We understand what it is because there is something within us that needs it and craves it. We can almost taste it” (p82) “The reign of God. We can point to it.... but we cannot quite realize it.” (p83)

Our final section of chapter 24 and on into chapter 25 moves us through a series of stories about how to act in the light of the kingdoms coming. Every Sunday we pray “Thy kingdom Come on earth as it is in heaven”... but how do we make that prayer more than words? What is the practical outcome of understanding that we will never know when the Kingdom will be here, yet being called upon to prepare for it's coming? The key appears to be 'faithfulness'. Read verses 45 - 51

"Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, 'My master is staying away a long time,' and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Hear this passage... adapted from the Message Bible.

"I have a job vacancy. Anybody here qualify for the job of overseeing the kitchen? I need a person the Master can depend on to feed the workers on time each day. Someone the Master can drop in on unannounced and always find them doing a good job. A God-blessed man or woman! I tell you, it won't be long before the Master will put that person in charge of the whole operation.

"But if that person only looks out for themselves... and the minute the Master is away does what they please — abusing the help and throwing drunken parties for their friends — the Master is going to show up when they least expect it and make hash of them. They'll end up in the dump with the hypocrites, out in the cold... shivering ... teeth chattering. “

There's a TV program called “Undercover Boss” in which company mangers disguise themselves and go out among their workforce to discern what is really going on. By doing so they gain an insight as to where the strengths and weaknesses are in their companies. It can be a surprisingly emotional program. Often the bosses are humbled to see the commitment that some of their employees have to their company. Invariably, when the boss realizes the potential some of the employees have, they are promoted to higher levels of engagement within the company. The whole premise of the program is, to use 'The Message's' words, the 'Master showing up when they least expect it'. It is a feature of the program that faithfulness and loyalty are rewarded.

Let's put that into the framework of Matthew Chapter 24. We don't know when the Master is coming. We don't know when the Kingdom of God will be revealed in all it's glory. We cannot predict how God is going to answer our often spoken prayer “Thy will be done on earth as it is done in heaven”.

But some things we can know. Firstly that the Kingdom is coming. That there will come a time when things will be as God intends. We can never know when that will be. In a positive sense: “God only knows.”

Secondly, we can know that there is a way that God has chosen to bring the Kingdom into being. The Kingdom comes 'on earth as it is in heaven' when those whom God calls (or if you want to use the term those God 'elects') to be God's servants, are faithful in doing the things God calls them to do. What sort of things? Well, we'll find out more of that in chapter 25! But for now it is sufficient to remind ourselves that Jesus tells us that the whole job description of being a disciple revolves around loving God and loving others as much as God loves them.

That's the crazy thing about all this future watching. Jesus encourages us to do it, but only so as we understand that, as we can never get our heads around it, we better just trust God to sort it all out and get on with the job of being faithful to more immediate concerns God brings to our attention.

Chapter 24 is quite a journey! We start out with a sight-seeing trip in old Jerusalem, are taken from there into questions about the end of all things. In the midst of it all Jesus appears to offer warnings about the temples immanent destruction, (warnings that were tragically fulfilled in AD 70 when Jerusalem was all but destroyed)... as well as floating visions about a future that is out of this world.

We are warned not to speculate about such things but rather be ready for action by trusting the Word and doing what He asks us to do. And the chapter closes with harsh words for any who feel they can live however they please and ignore the signs of the times.

And next time....
more future-casted stories.
So... unless the end of the world interrupts our calendar,
I hope to gather with you again in the not so distant future!

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