“With Power and Great Glory”
March 16, 2014
The Son is coming to rescue his own.
I. Fleeing the destruction of Jerusalem (Matthew 24:15-22)
II. Beware of false hopes (Matthew 24:23-28)
III. Coming on the clouds of heaven (Matthew 24:29-31)
IV. All things are ready for his coming (Matthew 24:32-35)
V. But the day and the hour is unknown (Matthew 24:36-44)
Last week we started Matthew chapter 24, the first of two chapters in which Jesus gives his own insight into what we call the end times or the second coming of Christ. We saw that the first 14 verses of Matthew 24 are not only about the end times, but about our times; the tragedies of the world we live in tell our hearts that the end is near, that this cannot go on. And the rest of the chapter affirms that truth. Jesus gives us insight into history, and into our own day, but mostly he assures us he is coming, with power and great glory, to rescue.
Now this is one of the most debated chapters in Scripture, because it is one of not many places in Scripture that give enough detail to begin to form a framework of the end time. So we want to fit this chapter with I Thessalonians 4 and the rapture, with I Corinthians 15 and resurrection, with the book of Revelation and the prophecies of Daniel. Putting these together, what theologians call ‘eschatology’ isn’t easy and has led to many theories of the end times. H have definite ideas on these subjects, but I can’t, in the course of a 27 minute message address all those theories. And I don’t believe I have to, because here and in each of those other Scriptures there is one thing most people agree on: Jesus is coming again. Jesus is going to wrap up this age and set up eternity and it’s going to be good. So I’ll walk through this chapter and give you as much of my understanding as I can squeeze in, but whether you agree or not, our job today is to celebrate the central truth that the Son is coming to rescue.
At the start of Matthew 24 Jesus predicted that not one stone of the temple would remain standing. This led the disciples to ask their two part question: “when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” In the first part of his answer Jesus said that the common tragedies of the fallen word are not signs of the end, though they remind us that there is a better world coming. But in verse 15 Jesus begins to give more details.
Matthew 24:15-22 “So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), 16then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 17Let the one who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house, 18and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. 19Alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! 20Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath. 21For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. 22If those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.
This section, and the whole rest of the chapter, are deeply tied to the 14 verses we studied last week. The first part of Jesus’s answer envisioned a long period in which there would be man-made and natural disasters, false prophets leading people away from Christ, persecution, and sharing of the Gospel message. This whole period is called a time of distress or tribulation, but is, not, Jesus says, the end, at least not until the Gospel is preached to all nations.
So in that basic framework Jesus now describes one time period when there will be particularly great distress. It starts when you see ‘the abomination that causes desolation" standing in the holy place. Daniel uses this well-known phrase four times. Daniel 11:31, for example, predicts the desecration of the temple by the Greek ruler Antiochus Epiphanes in 168 B.C. He erected an altar to Zeus on the altar of burned offering, sacrificed a pig on it, and made practicing Judaism a capital offense, leading ultimately to the revolt of the Maccabees.
In Daniel 9 and 12 we read of a similar occurrence during the 70th week of Daniel’s chronology, a seven year tribulation, ‘a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time.’ During the last three and a half years of that tribulation, ‘the abomination that makes desolate’ is set up in the temple. Jesus is linking Daniel’s prophecies with his own prediction of the temple’s destruction, and the parenthetical "let the reader understand" is not addressing the reader of Matthew, but the reader of Daniel, who learns from Jesus that when these prophecies are fulfilled the temple will be destroyed.
But when do these events Jesus and Daniel describe to take place? Every reader of Matthew’s gospel after 70 A.D. would assume that the siege of Jerusalem by Rome, the desecration of the altar by the Zealots during that siege, and ultimately the destruction of the temple were the fulfillment of this prophecy. And I believe that’s true, though not the whole fulfilment. We’ve seen over years of studying Scripture together that at times prophecies have both a near and ultimate fulfillment. This prophecy was fulfilled in 70 A.D. Some of the details demand that. But Jesus may also anticipate a further fulfillment in the end times.
The instructions Jesus gives about what to do when that abomination appears are specific to the Jewish revolt: ‘let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains; let the one who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house.’ Most roofs were flat, and in Jerusalem they were close enough together that it would be possible to run from roof to roof to get out of the city quickly. In the surrounding fields people would not even take time to go home for their cloaks. It would be dreadful for pregnant women and nursing mothers, verse 19, and made worse, verse 20, if God allowed it to occur in winter.
As for fleeing on the Sabbath, it would be difficult because few would help, and many would try to prevent traveling farther than a Sabbath day's journey. Jesus clearly expects this to happen while the strict Sabbath law is in effect.
This flight from Jerusalem is pretty well documented among the early Christians. Eusebius says that “the people of the church in Jerusalem were commanded by a revelation to leave the city and dwell in a certain town of Perea called Pella." He later gives more details and other historians of the time confirm them. Even Josephus, though he doesn’t specifically name Christians, records several times when people fled the city of Jerusalem during the war.
In verse 21 Jesus tells us this flight precedes a “great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.” It is a time of unequaled suffering, as Daniel predicted. And if you read Josephus on ‘the Jewish war’ you find savagery, slaughter, disease, and famine, mothers eating their own children. The scale may be smaller than has occurred in the twentieth century, but the individual suffering was as great and the portion of the population that died comparable to any of the world’s great evils.
From this "great distress" believers were to flee; the Christians fled to Pella. I believe this is the primary fulfillment because Jesus anticipates a long history on the other side of the fulfillment in which that suffering will not be exceeded. If the fulfilment of this prophecy is in the end times just before the blessing of the Millennium, it makes no sense to say such great distress would never happen again; of course it wouldn’t. But if this is a high point preceding a long time of distress and persecution, it makes sense. It may be replayed to some extent in the end times, but destruction of the temple is the primary reference.
So it’s at the end of that long period, verse 22 that the days are cut short. If they were not, ‘no human being would be saved.’ Jesus applies this truth to every human being and to all the elect, not just to those who were in Jerusalem when this first crisis occurred. He’s saying that eventually, in the midst of Gospel expansion, persecution and suffering will become so bad that, if not checked, no one would survive. We’ve seen two world wars, the threat of nuclear holocaust, and more Christian martyrs than in all of church history: Jesus' prediction does not seem farfetched. But the age will not run its course; it will be cut short. We do have the hope we discussed last week, that Jesus will come back and God will sovereignly intervene to rescue.
Verses 23-28 repeat a warning already given earlier: Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. 24For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. 25See, I have told you beforehand.
26So, if they say to you, ‘Look, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. 27For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 28Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.
Matthew 24:4-5 already described the false christs, imposters who appropriate His name and lead many astray. Our faith gives us a sober responsibility to neither believe lies nor trust imposters. Many will promote these false christs, whose goal, if possible, is to deceive the elect. The words ‘if possible’ reflect the intent of the imposters: they are out to deceive even true believers, but these attacks will not ultimately be successful in the case of the elect. Those who are deceived are those not truly trusting Christ to begin with.
So Jesus’ followers are not to look for him as part of some hidden return. He won’t come to a lonely desert place, nor appear in a hidden room. Most imposters who have called themselves ‘the Christ’ in the last two thousand years have appeared in obscurity. Sun Myung Moon, for example, was a simple prisoner in a communist labor camp in the early 50’s. He divorced his first wife before founding Unification Church and proclaiming himself the Christ. Only then did his heresy begin to grow. But Christ’s second coming will be very public. It will be unquestionable, not confined to some little group of initiates. As the lightning comes out of the east but is everywhere visible, as far away as the west, so also the Son of Man’s coming will be visible to people everywhere.
But what ‘coming’ is this? There are some who contend that with this return Christ immediately ushers in the New Heavens and New Earth. Others think he’s speaking of a hidden coming in which he secretly removes the church before a period of tribulation that leads to his thousand year reign on earth. That millennium is followed by a final rebellion, and after that he creates an eternal heaven and earth. I can’t go into all the evidence, but my own position is that he does come to rapture the church but in the very public way described here, as his wrath is poured out in the tribulation. Then comes his millennial reign in which he will fulfill all the Old Testament’s promises to the people of Israel; nations will come to his light, and people to faith. Only after that time will he defeat Satan and death forever and create the New Heavens and New Earth.
In verse 28 Jesus quotes a proverb to wrap up this part of his answer “Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” This comment has been considered obscure by many, I’m not sure why. To me it’s obvious that the vultures he’s come back to twice in his answer already are the false christs who lead people astray. When times of tribulation and distress become severe, Jesus has already said, these false prophets will spring up like weeds, like vultures.
But there will come a day, when Jesus comes to rescue. Verses 29-31: “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 30Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. 31And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.”
I don’t think these celestial signs immediately follow the ‘abomination’ that was set up in the temple; they follow "the distress of those days,” the entire time of distress after the resurrection. I also believe these signs in the heavens are the same as those in Revelation 6:12-13, which describes the opening of the sixth seal on the scroll of God’s judgments. These are almost certainly literal cosmic events, though not described with scientific accuracy. For example the stars that fall from heaven are likely a natural or supernatural meteor shower, not the arrival of stars like the sun in the atmosphere of our planet. The single meteor that struck Russia last year shows how fearful this would be.
But even more awesome will be the sign of the Son of Man, verse 30. And this verse is paralleled in Revelation 6:16-17, where the people of earth cower before the appearing of the Lamb. Jesus says he will come on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. This image is from Daniel 7:13-14. “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.” Daniel gives the big picture: as Jesus receives glory from the Father he comes on the clouds of heaven to establish everlasting dominion over every people and nation. By alluding to this image Jesus is focusing the Day of the Lord on himself, it’s the taking up of his reign, his second coming.
When Jesus came the first time it was in quiet obscurity to a stable; when he comes to rescue his people and begin the final judgment, he comes in glory, visible to all, and in power, ‘mighty to save. He will not come quietly, but with a trumpet and a shout. He’ll say enough rebellion, enough hatred, enough war, enough inhumanity. I saw a link this week to a video about a little girl removed from an abusive home, struggling in the foster care system and though the details were fictional, the reality of the pain we inflict on each other was vivid, and I wanted to shout ‘stop that.’ That’s what Jesus wants too; he wants to come and rescue and is waiting only for the fullness of his Father’s time.
Verse 31 is not directly paralleled in Revelation 6. If it had been I think there would be little debate about how the two end times accounts fit. But it is paralleled in 1st Thessalonians 4, the account of the rapture: “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.” The angels and trumpets herald the arrival of the Son of Man and the taking up of the church. This is not 70 A.D. at the destruction of the temple. This is far too visible and cosmic and final an event to have already happened.
Yet vs. 32-35 say: “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. 33So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 34Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. 35Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
The people Jesus was talking to would know that the tender leaves of the fig tree were one of the first signs of summer in Judea. In the same way the completion of ‘all these things’ is a sign that the Son of Man, is near. But what are “all these things?” It doesn’t make sense to include the cosmic signs, the arrival of the Son of Man and the gathering of the elect because if those things had happened the end would not be near, it would be here. So ‘all these things’ must, again, be all the things in the earlier parts of the chapter. Once those were in place, the return of Christ was the next major step in God's plan. But that only opens the window of opportunity; it does not tell us when it ends. Jesus is about to teach that no one knows the day or hour.
But what about verse 34? “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” "This generation" is naturally understood as the generation living when Jesus spoke; to make it refer to all believers in every age, or the generation of believers alive when eschatological events start to happen, is highly artificial. But that doesn’t mean that Jesus was mistaken and thought the end would come within his hearers' lifetime. All this verse requires is that the distresses, including Jerusalem's fall, begin within the lifetime of that generation. These things must happen before the window of his return would open, and they did happen before that generation passed away. Jesus does not say how long after that the actual second coming will take place. Instead he commands every generation to wait with expectation.
That’s what Jesus teaches in the final section, verses 36-44 “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. 37For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, 39and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. 41Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. 42Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.
These verses begin a long section which in many ways exhorts us to vigilance, to be ready for Christ’s return despite the fact that the day and the hour of that return are unknown, and despite the fact that life in a fallen world seems to be going on as it always has. Jesus teaches that no one knows when that day will come except the Father, not even the angels or the Son himself. I think we have to admit that the Son of Man’s ignorance of His Father’s plan is a mystery. It seems that in the incarnation Jesus set aside, temporarily, the exercise of his omniscience, in order to show his submission to the Father. He became like us, needing to trust his Father for the final outcome of His plan. We see that in the Garden of Gethsemane, and it’s true here. Thus, as one commentator says, “If the Son himself does not know the time of the Parousia, how cheerfully should we his followers rest in ignorance that cannot be removed, trusting in all things to our Heavenly Father's wisdom, striving to obey his clearly revealed will, and leaning on his goodness for support"
In verses 37-39 Jesus makes an analogy between our days and the days of Noah: the coming of the Son of Man takes place at an unknown time, which can only be true if in fact life seems to be going on pretty much as usual—just as in the days before the Flood. People follow their ordinary pursuits. Despite the distress, persecutions, and upheavals, life goes on: people eat, drink, and marry. Jesus expects us to be vigilant, for the final climax of human history will break in suddenly on ordinary life. Verses 40 and 41 paint the same picture of unexpectedness in images that recall the rapture: “Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. 41Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left.” The two women are probably using a stone mill, squatting opposite each other with the mill between, each woman in turn pulling the stone around 180 degrees. The two are apt to be sisters, mother and daughter, or two household slaves.
Yet no matter how close their relationship, one is taken, the other left. Some have said that this taken means ‘taken in judgment,’ but it seems more likely that it refers back to verse 31; they are gathered with the elect; raptured.
Verse 42 summarizes the application: “Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” Stay awake; Jesus will expand this in the rest of this chapter and the next into all kinds of watchfulness and service and compassion. But here he keeps it very simple; the return is unexpected, so don’t be caught sleeping. Notice that Jesus refers to himself as ‘their Lord,’ ‘our Lord.” By this he lays the foundation both for the church's willingness to call Jesus "the Lord", a title that up to this time had only been used by the Jews for God himself, and for the church’s age long cry “Come, O Lord.”
He then gives the disciples a simple first example of what he means: you know that the master of a house would stay awake and watch if he expected a thief in the night. How much more so should you stay awake and be alert and engaged as you are expecting me, even though I have not told you the hour. In this one respect, the unexpectedness of his coming, the Son of Man resembles a thief.
So what have we seen? There is a lot of wonderful stuff here that has led to all kinds of theological inquiry and speculation. But Jesus doesn’t want us to miss the central truth: that we live in a time of waiting and the he has promised us by his own word that this waiting is not in vain, that the Son is coming to rescue.
As I’ve said already today, this truth is perhaps understood best by celebrating it. We’ve already done that with songs as varied as ‘Lo, He Comes With Clouds Descending’ and ‘Face to Face’ and ‘Glory Will Cover the Earth.’ Now we’re going to close with a song you might think of as a Christmas carol but it’s so much more: “Joy to the world, the Lord is come, let earth receive her king’ and then with a song that my daughter Abbie wants sung at her funeral if she should happen to die before the Lord comes: “Look Ye Saints, the sight is Glorious; See the Man of Sorrows now! From the fight returned victorious, Every knee to Him shall bow. Crown Him! Crown Him! Crowns become the Victor's brow.” We celebrate now the certainty and promise of our Lord’s return in glory and great power.