Begin with the End

Please read Matthew 24.

 Image

(Artist’s concept of Herod’s Temple, image retreieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/archaeology_illustrated/6894285675/ on 5/16/14.)

          A picture – it is said – is worth a thousand words, but let’s take a moment to experience the temple in Jerusalem in Jesus’ day by exercising our imaginations.  Imagine a temple complex that covered one-sixth of the entire city.

          The temple itself is like  mountain of marble, decorated with gold.  Some of the STONES to which Jesus referred were 37.5 feet by 12 feet by 18 feet in size!

          Craftsmen have labored on the temple complex for the last 46 years and they’re still not finished.

          This temple is the third and most ornate they’ve had.  It is the center of their faith, the source of much pride, and the direction in which they offered their daily prayers.  The temple is literally the earthly shelter of God Himself.

          And Jesus gestures to all of it and says, “NOT ONE STONE WILL BE LEFT ON ANOTHER.”  Put yourself in the place of the disciples.  How would you feel after He said that?  Would you be stunned?  Angry?  Defensive?

          If you were showing someone around our beautiful facility – which is 45 years old this year – and they concluded the tour saying, “Yeah, but this thing is gonna get knocked to the ground!”  How would you feel about that?  What would you say to such a person?

          Now perhaps you can begin to appreciate the trauma Jesus’ sudden declaration must’ve caused the disciples.

1. The end is near but unclear. (1-3, 32-34).

          The disciples’ purpose in drawing Jesus attention to the temple mount is in response to what He said in 23:37-39.  Jesus used it as a “teachable moment” to warn His disciples about the end.

          I doubt they anticipated His next statement!

          He unambiguously foretells the destruction of the temple in language familiar to those who knew their Old Testament prophets (i.e., Jeremiah 26:6+18; Micah 3:12). This was not the first or last time Jesus had said this (Matthew 23:38; 26:61). Given the high opinion the Jews had of the temple, this must have sounded like treason!

          How did Jesus’ disciples react to His pronouncement?

          They pursued a private discussion.  Jesus made His statements in a very public place, but the disciples wisely asked Him to elaborate in a private place.  No doubt Jesus’ statements had an inflammatory effect on those who heard them; to talk further on this line would invite public rebuke.

          They asked a lot of questions.

          “WHEN WILL THIS HAPPEN?” refers to Jesus’ prophecy about the destruction of the temple. The disciples saw this as a catastrophic event and a sure sign the end was near, but that doesn’t prove Jesus did. In fact, His answer deals with both the destruction of the temple and His Second coming separately, but considers them all of a piece in that they’re all part of a set of events associated with the End.  Though many years separate the destruction of the temple (72 AD) and the Second Coming (? AD), they’re a set.

          “WHAT WILL BE THE SIGN OF YOUR COMING AND THE END OF THE AGE?” Notice they’re asking for THE SIGN.  As if the answer would be that simple.  The signs He gives them are not of the very end, but the beginning of the end, events one generation or less removed from the end.

          A “SIGN” is, by definition of the Greek word,  a “distinguishing mark by which something is known, a token, indication or landmark.”  It is a private communication between parties who alone understand it’s message. Biblically, a SIGN is a miracle that verifies that a person who claims to speak for God really is doing so.

          “YOUR COMING:” in spite of the way it may sound to us, the Twelve are not talking about the Second Coming.  They’re more likely referring to Jesus coming into His kingdom in a more earthly sense.

          Likewise, the expression “THE END OF THE AGE” is not a reference to the Second Coming.  The Jews expected that the coming of the Messiah would begin a new age, renewing all creation. This phrase is found five times in Matthew and just once more in the remainder of the New Testament.  It is not used again in this passage. That makes me think that Jesus did not directly answer their question, but provide the answer He knew they needed. That is not an uncommon occurrence in the Gospels.

          Jesus used the fig tree (vs. 32-33) as an example of how we can rely on His promise that the End is coming without knowing how soon it will be coming. The Mount of Olives was a natural spot for this illustration, as it was covered with fig trees. A trained eye could spot changes in the fig trees and this let them know that summer was approaching, but it would not warn them when the first hot day would be. Jesus want us to feel the nearness of His Second Coming and be prepared without setting a date and time.  It’s about preparation, not guessing right.

          He warned us that though there will be terrible times, all these things must happen before the end of the age arrives.  As He said, we have been warned.

          “THIS GENERATION” refers to those living when these signal calamities occur. It does not refer to the disciples but to those who actually experience the calamities about which Jesus is warning us.  All four signs will come to pass in a single generation & then the End will occur. The Jews reckoned a “generation” to be about 40 years (average life span).  Even so, Jesus is not talking about a length of time as much as a set of experiences.

          Hence the title of this message.

2. Sign #1: False Christs will appear. (4-5, 23-28)

          Our waiting for Jesus’ return is not passive; our main activity is to be prepared and Jesus commands us to “WATCH OUT.” What we’re watching out for are those who falsely claim to be the Second Coming of Jesus.  In v. 5, Jesus is trying to impress us with the fact that this will be a significant problem. “MANY WILL COME” = This will be a widespread problem. “IN MY NAME” = Claiming to be the true representative of Jesus’ teaching and/or the real bearer of His authority. “CLAIMING, ‘I AM THE CHRIST’,” = This sounds outlandish, but the next phrase shows that it will be effectively deceptive. The Gk is pseudochrist, an equivalent term to “antichrist” & “false prophet.” “WILL DECEIVE MANY” = There’s that word MANY again. Many “pseudochrists” will appear and many people will be tricked into following them.

          Part of watching out is not accepting every claim of His appearing. Verses 23+26 expand on verse 5; deceived persons will attempt to recruit others. Preying on the mistaken notion that the Messiah will show up in secret first, the deceivers will pretend they have seen Him. Jesus warns His disciples not to be taken in by such lies, because His return will be a world-wide event, obvious to all and unmistakable.

          Their falsehoods will be backed up by SIGNS and MIRACLES, a typical biblical test for truth. However, 2 John 10 is the New Covenant standard for validation: conformity to the word of God.

          The purpose of these misleading MIRACLES is to deceive God’s people, though, of course, such a thing is not possible, for we have been warned and are able to WATCH OUT for them. Jesus’ reference to the “DESERT” contrasts with the “INNER ROOMS” in the same way that “in the middle of nowhere” contrasts with “in the seats of power.”  Don’t look for Him there.

          Jesus offers two illustrations of how a watchful person will see what’s coming. The visibility of the Second Coming will be like a lightning strike that flashes from one side of the sky to the other. The Second Coming will be as obvious as the presence of vultures circling overhead a corpse.

          In all the ages of the Church, believers who have suffered have turned to passages like Matthew 24 to seek the comfort of knowing that their suffering is a prelude to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.  The truth is, Jesus did not offer these words for that reason, but for the opposite.

          He’s effectively saying to us, “As much as it feels like the end of the world, it is not coming yet.  Be perceptive, prepared, and patient.  When you see all four of these signs, then start the countdown, for that generation will live to see the coming of the Son of God.”  What we are given is an assurance that there will BE an end, and most importantly, that it rests safely in the hands of God.  So we can trust Him that it will all work out in favor of His people.

          When we get desperate enough, we become more likely to accept a lie as true.  Jesus is cautioning us against that kind of desperation and credulity.  Instead, we’re to be smarter, more faithful, and more patient, understanding that when Jesus comes again, there will be no question that it is Him.

          Did you hear about the teacher who was helping one of her kindergarten students put his boots on? He asked for help and she could see why. With her pulling and him pushing, the boots still didn’t want to go on. By the time she got the second boot on, she had worked up a sweat.

          She almost whimpered when the little boy said, “Teacher, they’re on the wrong feet.” She looked and sure enough, they were. It wasn’t any easier pulling the boots off than it was putting them on. She managed to keep her cool as they worked together to get the boots back on — this time on the right feet.

He then announced, “These aren’t my boots.” She bit her tongue rather than get right in his face and scream, “Why didn’t you say so?” like she wanted to. Once again she struggled to help him pull the ill-fitting boots off.

          He then said, “They’re my brother’s boots. My Mom made me wear them.” She didn’t know if she should laugh or cry. She mustered up the grace to wrestle the boots on his feet again.

          She said, “Now, where are your mittens?” He said, “I stuffed them in the toes of my boots …”

          Ever have one of those days?

Research based on:

Smith & Helwys Bible Commentary, Ben Witherington III

Word Biblical Commentary, Hagner.

NEXT WEEK

3. Sign #2: The world will be in turmoil. (6-8, 29)

4. Sign #3: The Church will be persecuted, but will be triumphant. (9-14)

IN TWO WEEKS

5. Sign #4: The Holy Land will be under attack. (15-22)

6. We have nothing to fear. (13, 35)

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