The Signs of Christ’s Coming—part 7 Ready or Not
But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone. For the coming of the Son of Man will be just like the days of Noah. For as in those days which were before the flood they were eating and drinking, they were marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and they did not understand until the flood came and took them all away, so shall the coming of the Son of Man be. Then there shall be two men in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken, and one will be left. Therefore be on the alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming. 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. For this reason you be ready too; for the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not think He will.
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? Blessed is that slave whom his master finds so doing when he comes. Truly I say to you, that he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But if that evil slave says in his heart, “My master in not coming for a long time,” and shall begin to beat his fellow slaves and eat and drink with drunkards; 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, and shall cut him in pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites; weeping shall be there and the gnashing of teeth. (24:36–51)
The familiar expression “Here I come, ready or not” could well be applied to Jesus’ second coming, because He is coming according to the sovereign plan of God, with no regard for worldwide or individual readiness. Jesus is coming when He is coming, because the when and how of His return have long since been predetermined in the sovereign wisdom of God.
In response to the disciples’ question, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” (24:3), Jesus told them of the birth pains that would immediately precede His coming (vv. 4–28), of the abomination of desolation (v. 15), which would precipitate those signs, and of the supreme sign of His own appearing on the clouds of heaven (v. 30). Now He gives them a partial answer to the “when” part of the question.
Although there will be observable, worldwide, and unmistakable indications of His coming just before it occurs, the exact time will not be revealed in advance. Of that day and hour no one knows, Jesus declared categorically. The signs He had just been describing will be conclusive proof that His arrival is very near. Once they have begun, the general time period of His return will be known, because one of the key purposes of the signs will be to make it known. But even during those sign-days the precise day and hour of Jesus’ appearing will not be known, a truth He reiterates several times in this Olivet discourse (see 24:42, 44, 50; 25:13).
As has been noted, the books of Daniel and Revelation both make clear that the full Tribulation will last seven years and that the second part of it, the Great Tribulation, will last three and a half years (Dan. 7:25; 9:27; 12:7; Rev. 11:2–3; 12:14; 13:5). Then, “immediately after the tribulation of those days,” Jesus said, “the Son of Man [will come] on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory” (Matt. 24:29–30). Precisely how is not immediately said.
Daniel and Revelation also speak of an expanded period of 1,290 days (Dan. 12:11; Rev. 12:6), 30 days more than the basic 1,260 of the Great Tribulation. Daniel also mentions a 1,335-day period (Dan. 12:12), adding another 45 days to make a total addition of 75. As suggested in chapter 3 of this volume, it seems that the best explanation for those additional days is that they will cover the time when the Messiah descends to the Mount of Olives, creates the great valley in which the nations of the world will be judged, and executes that judgment (see Zech. 14:5; Matt. 25:31–46).
Nevertheless, even with all those indisputable signs and precisely designated periods, the exact day and hour will not be known by any human beings, not even Tribulation believers, in advance. Although the Lord gives no reason for their not knowing, it is not difficult to imagine some of the problems that such knowledge would cause. For one thing, if unbelievers knew the precise time of Christ’s arrival, they would be tempted to put off receiving Him as Lord and Savior until the last moment, thinking they could make the decision any time they wanted before He actually is scheduled to appear.
But even if they planned to wait until the precise date and hour of Christ’s appearing, they would not know if they would live until that time. Like the rich farmer (Luke 12:16–20), they will have no guarantee of the length of their lives and therefore have no guarantee they will still be alive when Christ appears. Although the generation living when the signs begin will not pass away until Christ returns (Matt. 24:34), many individual members of that generation will pass away, some by natural causes and a large percentage at the hand of the Antichrist.
Even if they knew the precise time of Christ’s appearing and were certain they would live until then, they would be fooling themselves to think they could simply receive Him before that time. The fact that they will have put off trusting in Christ for as long as they have will be certain evidence they have no sincere desire to follow Him as Lord and Savior. If the indescribable perils of the Tribulation will not persuade them to turn to the Lord, the knowledge of His exact arrival time certainly would not.
As far as believers are concerned, knowledge of that specific time might also make them careless, causing them to withdraw and become spiritually sedentary, thinking it would be pointless to make plans for serving the Lord or to make further effort to win the lost. No one, believer or unbeliever, could think or function normally knowing the exact day and hour of Christ’s coming.
Neither will the supernatural world know the precise time, not even the angels of heaven. Although the righteous angels enjoy intimacy with God, hovering around His throne to do His bidding (Isa. 6:2–7) and continually beholding His face (Matt. 18:10), they are not privy to this secret. The angels will be directly and actively involved in the end time as God’s agents to separate the saved from the unsaved (see Matt. 13:41, 49), but for His own reasons God the Father will not reveal in advance exactly when He will call them into that service.
Still more amazingly, not even the Son knew at the time He spoke these words or at any other time during His incarnation. Although He was fully God as well as fully man (John 1:1, 14), Christ voluntarily restricted His use of certain divine attributes when He became flesh. “Although He existed in the form of God, [He] did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped,” that is, to be held onto during His humanness (Phil. 2:6). It was not that He lost any divine attributes but that He voluntarily laid aside the use of some of them and would not manifest those attributes except as directed by His Father (John 4:34; 5:30; 6:38).
Jesus demonstrated His divine omniscience on many occasions. “He did not need anyone to bear witness concerning man for He Himself knew what was in man” (John 2:25). When, for example, Nicodemus came to Him at night, Jesus already knew what he was thinking and answered his question before it was asked (John 3:13).
But there were certain self-imposed restrictions in His human knowledge. He told the disciples, “All things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). Jesus obediently restricted His knowledge to those things that the Father wanted Him to know during His earthly days of humanity. The Father revealed certain things to the Son as He reveals them to all men—through the Scripture, through the Father’s working in and through His life, and through the physical manifestations of God’s power and glory (see Rom. 1:19–20). Jesus learned much of His earthly knowledge just as every human being learns, and it is for that reason that He was able to keep “increasing in wisdom” (Luke 2:52). In addition to those ways, some truths were revealed to the Son directly by the Father. But in every case Jesus’ human knowledge was limited to what His heavenly Father provided.
Therefore, even on this last day before His arrest, the Son did not know the precise day and hour He would return to earth at His second coming. During Christ’s incarnation, the Father alone exercised unrestricted divine omniscience.
It seems probable that Christ regained full divine knowledge after the resurrection, as implied in His introduction to the Great Commission: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Matt. 28:18). Just prior to His ascension, He told the disciples, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority” (Acts 1:7). He repeats the truth that the disciples would not be told the time of His appearing, but He did not exclude His own knowledge, as He did in the Olivet discourse.
The three attitudes Jesus mentions in Matthew 24:37–51 are specifically addressed to the generation (Matt. 24:34) that will be alive during the Tribulation and that will witness the signs described in verses 4–29. Those attitudes are: alertness (vv. 37–42), readiness (vv. 43–44), and faithfulness (vv. 45–51).
For the coming of the Son of Man will be just like the days of Noah. For as in those days which were before the flood they were eating and drinking, they were marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and they did not understand until the flood came and took them all away, so shall the coming of the Son of Man be. Then there shall be two men in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken, and one will be left. Therefore be on the alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming. (24:37–42)
Jesus used the Flood to illustrate the point He was making about the coming of the Son of Man, namely, that the attitude that prevailed during the days of Noah … before the flood will also characterize most people living during the end time just before Christ returns. They will not be expecting His coming and will not care about it. Despite the perilous signs and wonders, they will simply be unconcerned about the things of the Lord, especially the prospect of His imminent return to judge them.
Many people doubtless will try to explain the extraordinary end-time phenomena on a scientific and rational basis, expecting to discover a natural cause for the cataclysms. Like their counterparts today, they will look everywhere for answers except to the Word of God.
At Jesus’ first coming, most men refused to recognize Him for who He was. He healed every sort of disease, cast out demons, made water into wine, stilled a raging storm, and raised the dead, but even most of His own people refused to believe in Him. In fact the Jewish religious leaders were so determined to discredit Jesus that they accused Him of casting out demons in the power of Satan (Matt. 12:24).
Sinful, materialistic, hypocritical, godless mankind is willfully blind to God’s truth, no matter how compelling that truth may be. And when God’s truth exposes their wickedness, they make every effort to oppose and condemn it.
On one occasion “the Pharisees and Sadducees came up” to Jesus, “and testing Him asked Him to show them a sign from heaven. But He answered and said to them, ‘When it is evening, you say, “It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.” And in the morning, “There will be a storm today, for the sky is red and threatening.” Do you know how to discern the appearance of the sky, but cannot discern the signs of the times?’ ” (Matt. 16:1–3). By that time in His ministry the Lord had performed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of miracles, all of which testified to His divinity and His messiahship, yet those religious leaders refused to acknowledge Him. Because their hearts were determinedly set against Jesus, no sign could have brought them to belief. He therefore said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign; and a sign will not be given it, except the sign of Jonah” (v. 4). As Jesus explained on an earlier occasion, the sign of Jonah was His resurrection from the dead (12:39–40). That sign did not convince unbelievers, either. Just as most of their forefathers had done, they shut their minds to God’s Word and God’s messengers, even ignoring the teaching and miracles of the very Son of God. Worse even than ignore Him, they put Him to death.
During the time of the Tribulation, mankind will be hardened to sin and ungodliness as never before in history. As evil men get worse and worse (2 Tim. 3:13), the world then becomes spiritually darker and even physically darker. Unbelieving people will more intensely indulge their sins and more vehemently oppose God’s truth and God’s people. During the Tribulation the Holy Spirit will be removed from the earth, and evil and Satan will be unrestrained (2 Thess. 2:6–7). During the fifth trumpet judgment, demons bound in the bottomless pit will be unleashed on the earth to wreak unprecedented torment on unbelieving mankind, being forbidden to harm God’s people (Rev. 9:1–5).
As people run amok in sin and every form of debauchery and ungodliness, they will become more and more impervious to God’s truth and resentful of His standards of righteousness. They will be so vile, wretched, and preoccupied with sex, drugs, alcohol, materialism, and pleasure seeking that they will believe every explanation for the end-time signs except the one given in Scripture. Rather than turning to God in repentance, they will curse Him (Rev. 9:21).
In the days of Noah before the Flood, they were eating and drinking, they were marrying and giving in marriage. While Noah built the ark, he also preached (2 Pet. 2:5), but the people were just as unconcerned about his preaching as about the ark he was building, thinking both were meaningless and absurd. They laughed when he spoke of the coming flood. They had never seen rain, much less a flood, because until that time the earth was apparently covered by a vapor canopy that provided all the moisture necessary for life to flourish. Because they had never seen such a calamity, they discounted the idea that it could happen. They therefore went about their daily routines of eating and drinking and of marrying and giving in marriage. It was business as usual until the day Noah entered the ark and it started to rain.
Even when his prediction began to be fulfilled before their eyes, they did not take his warning to heart. Noah had built and preached for 120 years, yet without having the slightest impact on anyone outside his immediate family. The people were so untouched by God’s truth that they did not understand their perilous situation until the flood came and took them all away into a godless eternity. Flood translates kataklusmos, which means deluge or washing away, and is the term from which the English cataclysm is derived. Only after it was too late did the people of that generation understand their tragic destiny.
That is precisely the attitude and response that will prevail before the coming of the Son of man. The perilous signs, the abomination of desolation, the disruption of the heavenly bodies, and the preaching of God’s witnesses during the Tribulation will have no effect on the majority of men. They will see God’s signs but attribute them to natural causes or to supernatural causes apart from God. They will hear His Word, in one instance supernaturally preached worldwide by an angel (Rev. 15:6–7), but they will respond with disdain or indifference. They will heed neither warnings nor appeals from God up until the very moment the Son of Man appears to confront them in righteous judgment.
During the Tribulation there will be multitudes won to Christ (Rev. 7:9–14), including the 144,000 Jewish witnesses who will preach His gospel (Rev. 7:1–8), and there will be marvelous revival in the nation of Israel (Rom. 11:26). But that time will be dominated not by belief but by unbelief, not by holiness but by wickedness, not by godliness but by ungodliness. It will be epitomized by secularism and false religion, even as most of the world is today, but to an immeasurably worse degree.
Like the people of Noah’s day, the generation of the Tribulation will be warned and warned and warned again. Some of them will have been warned many times before the Tribulation, while the church is still on earth proclaiming the gospel.
When the Son of Man finally appears in His second-coming judgment, then there shall be two men in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken, and one will be left. Jesus is giving a figure parallel to the unbelievers of Noah’s day being taken away by the judgment through the Flood. When He returns, one will be taken to judgment and the other will be left to enter the kingdom. This is the same separation described in the next chapter by the figures of sheep and goats (25:32–46). The ones left will be Christ’s sheep, His redeemed people whom He will preserve to reign with Him during the Millennium.
But even until the very end, as Peter declared in his sermon at Pentecost, just “before the great and glorious day of the Lord shall come … it shall be that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:20–21). In that final moment when the King comes to establish His kingdom, some people will turn to Christ in sincere faith and be redeemed. They will be set apart as the Lord’s sheep by the angels and will inherit the kingdom prepared for them.
Therefore be on the alert, Jesus said, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming. The phrase be on the alert translates a present imperative, indicating a call for continual expectancy.
When the Lord comes, the ungodly will be swept away, having forever lost their opportunity for salvation. Just as believers today do not know at what time the Lord is coming to take them to Himself in the rapture, the generation alive during the Tribulation will not know the exact time of His appearing to judge the ungodly and to establish His kingdom.
Malachi envisioned believers in the last day apparently discussing among themselves the possibility that they would inadvertently and mistakenly be separated out with the wicked and be condemned. But “the Lord gave attention and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before Him for those who fear the Lord and who esteem His name. ‘And they will be Mine,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘on the day that I prepare My own possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his own son who serves him.’ So you will again distinguish between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve Him” (Mal. 3:16–18).
For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of darkness, reserved for judgment; and did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a preacher of righteousness, with seven others, when He brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; and if He condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to destruction by reducing them to ashes, having made them an example to those who would live ungodly thereafter; and if He rescued righteous Lot, oppressed by the sensual conduct of unprincipled men (for by what he saw and heard that righteous man, while living among them, felt his righteous soul tormented day after day with their lawless deeds), then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation [or trial], and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment. (2 Pet. 2:4–9)
Christians at that time must be alert, even though they will be secure and have no cause for dread.
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. For this reason you be ready too; for the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not think He will. (24:43–44)
Be sure of this translates what could be either a Greek imperative or an indicative. As an imperative it would be a form of command, but that idea seems inappropriate here, because Jesus was simply stating he obvious, a truism. As an indicative it would be a statement of fact as a reminder. “As everyone knows,” He was saying, “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.” No sane thief would announce his intention of robbing a house, and no sane head of the house who knew in advance at what time of the night the thief was coming would fail to be on the alert in order to prevent his house from being broken into.
The generation living during the Tribulation is specifically told they will not know the exact time of Jesus’ appearing, but they are informed in detail as to what the signs immediately preceding it will be. In other words, to carry out the figure Jesus uses here, they will know with absolute certainty that the thief will be breaking into the house sometime very soon and that they should be prepared accordingly.
It goes without saying that Jesus was not comparing Himself in character to a thief but was comparing His coming to the stealth and unexpectedness of a thief’s coming. The New Testament frequently compares the second coming to a thief’s coming (Luke 12:35–40; 1 Thess. 5:2; 2 Pet. 3:10; Rev. 3:3; 16:15), for the obvious reason that, as Jesus here points out, a thief never tries to rob a place where he knows he is expected, and certainly not at the exact time he is expected.
In one sense, however, Jesus will come in the role as well as with the unexpectedness of a thief. As far as the ungodly are concerned, He will come and take away everything they have, all the things they have cherished and trusted in instead of Him.
As already noted, it seems impossible that most people in that day will not be expecting Jesus’ coming. In light of the absolute destructiveness and horror of the signs of the end time they will witness, how could they not turn to God for help and mercy? How could they possibly attribute those things simply to natural causes? Yet most of them will be so overwhelmingly blinded by sin and self-will that no amount of evidence will cause them to seek God. Instead, hostility toward God will reach a fever pitch never known before on earth, not even during the times of Noah. For this reason, you be ready too, Jesus said, just as Noah and his family were ready.
In this context, being ready seems to refer primarily to being saved, of being spiritually prepared to meet Christ as Lord and King rather than as Judge. As Jesus had already warned (Matt. 24:37–42), everyone in the end time should be expectantly alert for His appearing, and as He mentions in verses 45–51, faithfulness to Him by those who are already saved is commanded. But the indispensable preparation for His coming, apart from which expectancy will be pointless and faithfulness will be impossible, is the preparation of salvation, of being redeemed through the blood of Christ. Otherwise a person will be ready only for judgment and damnation.
The Lord reemphasizes the fact that no one on earth will know exactly when He is coming, not even by an accidental right guess. He proclaims categorically: The Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not think He will. In divine fury and glory, the Son of Man will come in total surprise to every human being. Even believers who are expectantly and faithfully ready for His coming will nevertheless be astonished when He actually arrives. Their readiness will enable them to meet the Lord with gladness and without shame, but it will not provide advance knowledge of His precise arrival time.
Luke reports a similar warning Jesus gave on another occasion. “Be dressed in readiness, and keep your lamps alight,” He said. “And be like men who are waiting for their master when he returns from the wedding feast, so that they may immediately open the door to him when he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master shall find on the alert when he comes; truly I say to you, that he will gird himself to serve, and have them recline at the table, and will come up and wait on them” (Luke 12:35–37). When the Lord returns, those who are ready not only will find themselves in their Lord’s gracious presence but will be served personally by His own divine hand.
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? Blessed is that slave whom his master finds so doing when he comes. Truly I say to you, that he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But if that evil slave says in his heart, “My master in not coming for a long time,” and shall begin to beat his fellow slaves and eat and drink with drunkards; 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, and shall cut him in pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites; weeping shall be there and the gnashing of teeth. (24:45–51)
Jesus now presents another analogy to reinforce His point, using the familiar imagery of a trusted slave whom his master put in charge of feeding the entire household. The particular responsibility of the slave is incidental to Jesus’ point, which is that every believer is a slave of Jesus Christ and therefore obligated to serve Him in every way. Every believer has been given a divine stewardship and responsibility in the work of Christ on earth, and in that stewardship he is to be faithful and sensible. His life, breath, energy, talents, spiritual gifts, and every other good thing he has are trusts from God to be used in His service and to His glory.
Blessed is that slave, Jesus said, whom his master finds so doing when he comes. Truly I say to you, that he will put him in charge of all his possessions. Here Jesus is obviously addressing believers, those who have submitted to Him as Savior and Lord, as divine master. The believer who is found faithful to the Lord in what he has been given will be given charge of all of the Lord’s possessions, having inherited the absolute fullness of the kingdom of God as a fellow heir of Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:17). Not only that, but “He who overcomes,” Jesus said, “I will grant to him to sit down with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne” (Rev. 3:21).
Unbelievers, represented by the evil slave, will also be held responsible for what they do with their stewardship from God. During the end time, some unbelievers will remain openly sinful and rebellious against God, caring nothing for His truth or His mercy. Others will be aware of their lost condition and of their need of a Savior but will put off believing, thinking they will have time after fulfilling their own selfish interests but before He comes in judgment. They will say by their lives if not by their words, My master is not coming for a long time.
Jesus is teaching that every person in the world holds his life, possessions, and abilities in trust from God, whether or not he acknowledges that trust or even acknowledges God. He will therefore be held accountable by his Creator for how he uses what he has been given. That truth is seen in the parable of the king recorded in Matthew 18:23–34. Even the prodigal son of Luke 15 demonstrates that an unbeliever is squandering God-given stewardship.
The evil activities Jesus then mentions, the beating of fellow slaves and eating and drinking with drunkards, are not meant to characterize every unbeliever during the Tribulation. But those activities reflect the attitude many of them will have. Because they think the Lord will not come for a long time, they will feel free to indulge themselves in whatever sins and pleasures they desire.
But 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. In this case the master will not come as Savior and King to bless and to reward but will come as Judge and Executioner to condemn and to destroy. He will cut the unbelieving slave in pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites in eternal fire.
The phrase cut … in pieces is from dichotomeō and literally means to cut into two parts. It is used in that strict sense in the Greek translation of the Old Testament in regard to the preparation of an animal sacrifice (Ex. 29:17). To Jews it would therefore carry the unmistakable idea of destruction and death.
The fact that such persons will be assigned along with the hypocrites suggests that they were not hypocrites. Just as today, many people in the end time will be open and honest about their unbelief, even wearing such honesty as a badge of intellectual and moral integrity. But honest unbelievers are just as lost as hypocrites who pretend to have faith. They will go to the same place as the religious phonies they feel superior to and despise.
When He appears, the same resplendent glory and power (see Matt. 24:30) that will draw His own people to Him in loving gratitude will repel most unbelievers in hateful indignation. For the former it will be the time of final reception and redemption; for the latter it will be the time of final rejection and judgment.
All unbelievers-those who completely reject the Lord and those who think one day they will trust in Him, those who are honest in their unbelief and those who are hypocritical in their faith-will suffer the same destiny of hell. In that place there will be weeping … and the gnashing of teeth, figures representing inconsolable grief and unremitting torment.
The thrust of Jesus’ warning is not simply to inform unbelievers about the horror of facing an eternal hell but to use that dreadful prospect as a motive for believing in Him in order to escape it. His appeal is to believe while there is opportunity, rather than foolishly wait for a supposedly more propitious time that might never come and might not be taken advantage of if it did come.
In his commentary on this passage, William Barclay relates the following story to illustrate the danger of spiritual procrastination:
There is a fable which tells of three apprentice devils who were coming to this earth to finish their apprenticeship. They were talking to Satan, the chief of the devils, about their plans to tempt and to ruin men. The first said, “I will tell them that there is no God.” Satan said, “That will not delude many, for they know that there is a God.” The second said, “I will tell men that there is no hell.” Satan answered, “You will deceive no one that way; men know even now that there is a hell for sin.” The third said, “I will tell men that there is no hurry.” “Go,” said Satan, “and you will ruin men by the thousand.” The most dangerous of all delusions is that there is plenty of time. (The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 2 [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975], p. 317)
Why, one wonders, is Christ waiting so long to come again? First of all, He is waiting for evil to run its course. In his vision on Patmos, John saw an angel come “out of the temple, crying out with a loud voice to Him who sat on the cloud, ‘Put in your sickle and reap, because the hour to reap has come, because the harvest of the earth is ripe.’ And He who sat on the cloud swung His sickle over the earth; and the earth was reaped” (Rev. 14:15–16). The imagery depicts a field whose crop is completely ready for harvesting, here indicating the harvest of final judgment on unbelieving mankind. Not until the angel notifies Him that the harvest is ripe, will Christ come to earth and execute judgment. God’s sovereign purpose is to allow sin to reach its full evil limits, to run its complete destructive course.
Second, the Lord is waiting for all those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life to be saved. There must be the coming in of “the fulness of the Gentiles” (Rom. 11:25), the gathering in of Gentile saints into the church during the present age. It is also necessary for “all Israel [to] be saved” (v. 26), for all the believing sons of Abraham to be brought into the kingdom by faith in their Messiah and King.
Peter declares, “Do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:8–9). What seems to human beings to be a long period of time is but a moment to God, and they should not rely on their own finite perceptions of time to judge the delay in fulfilling His promises. It is not that God could not act in judgment at any time He chose, but that in His sovereign patience and love He is allowing the fullest time possible for men to repent and come to Him in faith.
But because He has chosen to delay judgment for what has already been thousands of years, some people in the last days will mockingly declare, “Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation” (2 Pet. 3:3–4). Like scientific uniformitarians, who believe that natural laws have always and will always operate in exactly the same way they operate now, latter-day religious scoffers will assume that because God has not yet judged the world He never will. “It escapes their notice,” however, Peter goes on to say, “that by the word of God the heavens existed long ago and the earth was formed out of water and by water, through which the world at that time was destroyed, being flooded with water” (vv. 5–6). The mockers will foolishly ignore the most catastrophic upheaval the world has yet experienced, in which every human being on earth was killed except for Noah and his family.
In Matthew 24–25 Jesus addresses those who will be alive during the generation of the Tribulation (Matthew 24:34). But believers today should be prepared for the Lord’s coming in the rapture of the church, in which the Lord takes them to heaven, just as believers in the end time should be prepared for His appearing in power and glory to establish the millennial kingdom.
To the church at Rome Paul wrote these sobering words:
[You know] the time, that it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed. The night is almost gone, and the day is at hand. Let us therefore lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts. (Rom. 13:11–14)
Paul commended the first generation church in Corinth for “awaiting eagerly the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:7), and he reminded the Philippian believers that “our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:20). The writer of Hebrews admonished believers, “Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near” (Heb. 10:24–25).
James’s counsel is, “Be patient; strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand” (James 5:8). Peter wrote, “The end of all things is at hand; therefore, be of sound judgment and sober spirit for the purpose of prayer” (1 Pet. 4:7), and John declared, “Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have arisen; from this we know that it is the last hour” (1 John 2:18). And the last words spoken directly by Jesus in Scripture are, “Yes, I am coming quickly” (Rev. 22:20).
Keeping Watch and Being Ready
“No one knows about that day or hour, 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.
“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. I tell you the truth, 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.”
An important contrast exists between the verses we looked at in the last study and the opening verse of the section of Matthew 24 to which we now come. It is the difference between “you know” in verse 33 and “no one knows” in verse 36. What the disciples were to know is that “when you see all these things” the end will be “near, right at the door.” “These things” refer to the terrible characteristics of their age, and ours—false messiahs, wars, earthquakes, famines, persecutions, apostasy, and false prophets. Having seen these things, we should know that the return of Jesus Christ is near, even at the door. That door could be flung open by Christ at any moment.
On the other hand, we do not know when Christ will return. When Jesus said, “No one knows about that day or hour” (v. 36), he did not mean that smart Bible teachers are nevertheless able to calculate the year or the decade. Those who have tried to do so have always been wrong.
This deliberate contrast reinforces what I have been saying about this chapter, namely: (1) that the return of Christ to gather his elect and judge the world is yet future; (2) that we do not know when this will be; and that, therefore, (3) we must keep watch and be ready, since we will be lost and perish if we do not. Jesus said, “He who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Matt. 10:22).
Everything in this last discourse, even the prediction of the fall of Jerusalem, makes these points. Nothing the disciples or we will ever see is a sure sign of the end, for the end will come without warning. As D. A. Carson writes, “The hour remains unknown until it arrives; and then the cleavage is sudden, absolute, and irreversible.”
Let me make this point another way. About half of Matthew 24 deals with signs that are not true signs of Christ’s return (vv. 4–26, 32–35). A very small section describes the return of Christ itself (vv. 27–31). But a third of chapter 24 (vv. 36–51) and all of chapter 25 (vv. 1–46), a total of sixty-two verses, warn us to get ready since we do not know when that day of final reckoning will be. Or to put it yet another way, Jesus stresses this single essential point with seven historical references, verbal pictures or parables—four in this chapter and three in the next.
The application is clear: Are you watching? Are you ready for Jesus Christ’s return?
The Days of Noah
The first story Jesus uses to emphasize the suddenness of his coming and the need to be ready for it is the destruction of the earth by the flood in the days of Noah. This was a well-known example of God’s judgment of wickedness, and it is referred to quite naturally by Old Testament prophets such as Isaiah (Isa. 54:9) and Ezekiel (Ezek. 14:14, 20) and by New Testament writers such as the author of Hebrews (Heb. 11:7) and Peter (1 Peter 3:20; 2 Peter 2:5). Jesus refers to it in verses 37–39.
The point of these verses is that the waters of the flood came suddenly and that those who were not prepared drowned. But this also points to a world that will be largely unbelieving at the time of Christ’s return. I emphasize this because some hold that Christ’s kingdom will eventually triumph in the world. This view is usually referred to as postmillennialism. The word millennium refers to the reign of Christ (for a thousand years, if interpreted literally), and postmillennialism means that Jesus will return only after his rule has been universally established. According to this view, Jesus reigns in and through the church and will return only after the church’s mission is fulfilled.
Postmillennialism was popular in former centuries when the supposedly “Christian nations” were extending their colonial power. It is not as popular today, when the West is in evident decline. True, the mission of the church does not depend on Western Christianity, and a great growth of Christianity is taking place today in the third world. But even when we turn from history and restrict ourselves to explicit scriptural teaching, not much encourages us to think in this falsely optimistic way. On the contrary, those who were taught by Jesus say that there will be terrible wickedness and even widespread apostasy in the church when Christ returns.
Peter wrote of the presence of false prophets in the last days, saying, “They will secretly introduce destructive heresies” (2 Peter 2:1). Again, “In the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, ‘Where is this “coming” he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation’ ” (2 Peter 3:3–4). Almost all of 2 Peter 2 and 3, two-thirds of the letter, describes the evil of the final days.
Jude is almost entirely about such times, and the author seems to echo Peter when he writes, “Remember what the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ foretold. They said to you, ‘In the last times there will be scoffers who will follow their own ungodly desires.’ These are the men who divide you, who follow mere natural instincts and do not have the Spirit” (vv. 17–19).
Paul wrote, “The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons” (1 Tim. 4:1). Or again, “There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God—having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Tim. 3:1–5).
None of these passages teaches that we are to be pessimistic. We must preach Christ everywhere, knowing that all whom God has elected to salvation will be saved. Not one will be lost. But neither do these passages teach an increasingly successful expansion of the gospel, still less a triumphant expansion of organized Christianity throughout the world. Rather, they encourage a faithful adherence to and preaching of the gospel in spite of the fact that it will not be universally received and in spite of the fact that there will be increasingly entrenched unbelief.
It is such a time Jesus envisioned when he told his disciples, “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” (vv. 37–39).
John Ryle had it right when he wrote, “The world will not be converted when Christ returns,” adding that “millions of professing Christians will be found thoughtless, unbelieving, Godless, Christless, worldly, and unfit to meet their Judge.” Will you be one of those who perishes in the judgment? Or will you be ready and watching when the Lord returns?
A Sudden Separation
The second picture Jesus paints to describe the nature of things at his return is in verses 40 and 41. “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.” Here we find the idea of a sudden separation. Two men working in a field would be coworkers. Two women working with a hand mill would probably be closely related, most likely a mother and daughter or two servants in the same household. Outwardly they would seem to be in identical situations and even identical in their relationships to Christ, but at his return one will be taken and the other left behind.
The verbs taken and left raise questions that Jesus does not answer in this passage. Does taken mean taken away in judgment and left mean left behind to prosper? That would not be an unreasonable way to understand these words. Or does taken mean taken to heaven when the Lord returns in glory with his angels and left mean being left behind on earth? Those who believe in a sudden “rapture” of the saints before a final return of Christ and the final judgment choose this second possibility.
It does seem clear that the idea of being taken to be with Christ at his return best fits the chapter, since Jesus had earlier spoken of sending his angels to “gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other” (v. 31). Yet the verses do not specify how this will happen, and they certainly do not say when. The point is only that “persons most intimately associated will be separated by that unexpected coming,” as John Broadus says.
That alone should encourage serious soul-searching. For one thing, it demolishes any fond hope of universalism, the idea that in the end everyone will be saved since God could never send anyone to hell. No one in the entire Bible speaks of hell as much as Jesus. In fact, he does so in this very chapter, saying in verse 51 that the servant who is found to have been unfaithful when the master returns will be “cut … to pieces” and assigned “a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” In the next chapter “weeping and gnashing of teeth” is joined to “darkness,” “eternal fire,” and “eternal punishment,” meaning hell. When Jesus says that “one will be taken and the other left,” he means that not all will be saved. Many will be lost. Be sure that you are not among those who perish when Jesus returns.
And there is this point too: No one will be saved simply by being close to or even related to another person who is a Christian. Salvation is not a hereditary matter. On the contrary, you must believe on Jesus, and you must be ready.
The Need to Be Watching
The third of Jesus’ illustrations is of a thief breaking into a house. “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” (v. 43).
This parable also teaches the sudden and unpredictable coming of the Lord and is used this way in four other New Testament passages. Paul wrote, “The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, ‘Peace and safety,’ destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape” (1 Thess. 5:2–3). Peter said, “The day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare” (2 Peter 3:10). Jesus told the church in Sardis, “If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you” (Rev. 3:3). He says the same thing later in Revelation: “Behold, I come like a thief” (Rev. 16:15). Each of these verses emphasizes the suddenness of Christ’s return.
But the image of a thief adds two additional factors. First, it adds the matter of value, since the thief comes to steal what is worthwhile. Almost everyone values his or her possessions. No one is careless with money, cars, or jewelry. That is why we lock these things up. We have safe-deposit boxes. We install antitheft devices and alarms on our cars. We insure especially valuable possessions. If we take such great care about these items, things that will all be lost to us or decay over time, shouldn’t we take at least that much care about things that are eternal? Shouldn’t we be at least equally anxious for the salvation of our souls?
Jesus said on an earlier occasion, “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” (Matt. 16:26). Obviously, it will be no good at all. Such a person will have lost the only thing that really matters, and in the end he will lose the world as well.
Second, the picture of the thief emphasizes the necessity of being watchful. “Since no one knows at what time, or during what ‘watch,’ the thief might strike, constant vigilance is required,” says D. A. Carson. The need to watch is explicitly stated both in the verse that precedes the words about the thief and in the one that follows. “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come” (v. 42) and, “So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him” (v. 44).
Are you keeping watch? Are you ready?
The Need to Be Ready
Each of these pictures is alike in stressing the sudden nature and unpredictability of Christ’s return, but each also adds its own unique elements. The picture of the flood reminds us that many persons will be lost. The picture of the two men working in the fields and the two women grinding at the mill points to a radical separation and reminds us that we are not saved by knowing or being close to a believer. The picture of the thief reminds us that our souls are valuable and that it is simple prudence for us to be ready.
What about this next picture, the contrast between the two servants? This picture provides an explanation of what being ready means. Being ready means loving, trusting, and waiting for Jesus Christ, of course. The faithful servant is faithful because he is expecting his Lord’s return. But it also has to do with faithful service, that is, continuing to carry out what Jesus has left us in this world to do. We find the same idea in two of the three parables in chapter 25. In one parable faithfulness is demonstrated by the wise use of the talents Christ has given (Matt. 25:14–30). In the other it is seen in selfless service to those who are hungry or thirsty or have other pressing needs (Matt. 25:31–46).
How are we to evaluate the service of these two men? Not much is said about the good servant, only that he gave the other servants their food at the proper time. Jesus may be thinking of spiritual food and of the service of ministers in teaching the Bible. On the other hand, a great deal is said about the bad servant. His service is marked by three vices.
- Carelessness. He neglects his work because, he says, “My master is staying away a long time” (v. 48). This reminds us of 2 Peter 3:4, which I referred to earlier: “They will say, ‘Where is this “coming” he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.’ ” It always seems like that to unbelievers. Jesus has not returned yet, so they are careless. But, says Peter, they “deliberately forget” that God judged the world in ancient times by water and that he has promised to do so again by fire at the final day (vv. 5–7). Besides, “with the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day” (v. 8). What seems delayed to us is not a delay with him. Therefore, says Peter, “Be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position” (v. 17).
- Cruelty. The second vice of the wicked servant is cruelty to his fellow servants, because he began “to beat” them (v. 49). This is like the Pharisees whom Jesus said would pursue, flog, kill, and crucify his servants (Matt. 23:34), only here it is not merely the apostles and missionaries who are beaten. The underservants are beaten, and the one doing the beating is a person who claims to be a servant of the Lord.
- Carousing. Finally, the Lord denounces the wicked servant for his carousing, noting that he has begun “to eat and drink with drunkards” (v. 49). He is behaving like those living in the days of Noah who were “eating and drinking” and “knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away” (vv. 38–39).
The passage says of the good servant only that it will be good for him when his master returns. But of the bad servant it says, “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” (vv. 50–51).
Are You Ready?
There is an old fable in which three apprentice devils were talking to Satan. The first one said, “I will tell people there is no God.” Satan replied, “That will not fool many, because they know there is a God.” The second devil said, “I will tell them there is no hell.” Satan said, “You will never fool many that way, because they know there is a hell.” The third said, “I will tell people there is no hurry.” Satan said, “Go, and you will ruin millions.”
Lord Shaftesbury, the great English social reformer of the nineteenth century (1801–1885), is reported to have said on one occasion, “I do not think that in the last forty years I have ever lived one conscious hour that was not influenced by the thought of our Lord’s return.” The anticipation of Jesus’ return must have been one of the strongest influences behind Shaftesbury’s efforts to assist the poor and advance the cause of foreign missions. Shaftesbury expected to meet Jesus face to face, and he watched for him. He was ready for his master to come.
So I ask again, even as Jesus asks over and over again in these chapters: Are you ready for his return? Are you watching? To be ready when Jesus returns means salvation; not to be ready is to perish.
The homeowner and the thief (24:42–44)
The exact relation between vv. 42–51 and Mark 13:33–37 is obscure and has not been satisfactorily explained. On the nature of parables, see comments at Matthew 13:3a; on comparison with Luke 12:39–40, see discussion and chart at Matthew 19:1–2. Each of the five parables in 24:42–25:46 deals with some aspect of watchfulness. But watchfulness is not always passive: duties and responsibilities must be discharged (24:45–51), and foresight and wisdom are important (25:1–13). Responsible living under Jesus’ directives is rewarded in the end (24:14–46).
42–44 The first parable teaches both the unexpectedness of the return of “your Lord” (kyrios hymōn, v. 42)—an expression that not only is identical to “the master” in the next parable (v. 45) but lays the foundation for the church’s cry “Come, O Lord!” (1 Co 16:22)—and the willingness of the church to call Jesus ho kyrios (“the Lord”), a title hitherto reserved in its religious use by the Jews for God himself (1 Co 12:3; Php 4:5; 2 Th 2:2; Jas 5:7; see comments at 8:2; 17:4, 14–16; 21:3; 22:41–46). It might be better to take ginōskete not as an imperative (NIV, “understand,” v. 43, GK 1182) but as an indicative (“you know”): the disciples know the owner of a house would watch if he knew when the thief was coming (on the tenses of the verb, see Zerwick, Biblical Greek, para. 317), so the thief could not break in (on the verb, see comments at 6:19). Since no one knows at what time or during what “watch” the thief might strike, constant vigilance is required. “So you also must be ready” (v. 44), because in this one respect—the unexpectedness of his coming—the Son of Man (see comments at vv. 37, 39; 8:20) resembles a thief.
42 This is the only call to “keep awake” in Matthew’s version of the discourse (except for its inappropriate insertion at 25:13; see comments there), as compared with its insistent repetition in Mark 13:33–37 (together with the related charge to avoid sleep in the verb agrypneō). The following parables, with their message about being prepared in advance and living a continuously good life, suggest that Matthew had a less frenetic approach to “readiness” than Mark (and Paul; see 1 Thes 5:1–7), and the acceptance in 25:5 that it is alright to sleep suggests a different perspective. But the call to be ready at any time is nonetheless appropriately symbolized by staying awake, as the simile in the next verse will show.
The event for which they must be ready is described as the day when “your lord comes.” The language anticipates the following parable (vv. 46, 50) where the kyrios is the returning master of the slaves; so also in 25:19. Indeed in the parallel at Mark 13:35 this kyrios is explicitly the “master of the house” (referring back to a different mini-parable in Mark 13:34 which Matthew does not include). But the Christian reader will naturally identify the “Lord” as Jesus, and so will think of the “day” (cf. v. 36) of the parousia of the Son of Man, even though the term parousia will not be used again. In its place here is the ordinary verb erchomai, “come,” but not now with the accompanying terms “the Son of Man” and “on the clouds of heaven” which in v. 30 indicated a primary allusion to the enthronement scene in Dan 7:13–14. In v. 44 the same verb will be used with the Son of Man as subject and clearly also with reference to the parousia as here, and it may be that in these uses of erchomai we have an allusive hint that the parousia may be viewed as a further and final fulfillment of that enthronement vision. That would tally with the use of Dan 7:13–14 language in 19:28 and 25:31–34 with reference to the “new age” and the final judgment (see comments on 10:23): the heavenly authority of the Son of Man which is to be demonstrated through the events of the Roman war according to v. 30 will be finally consummated in his parousia at the end of the age. But that may be to read too much into so everyday a word as erchomai here, especially when the following parable gives it a sense quite appropriate to the story line without demanding also an OT allusion.
Prepared for the Return of the King
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. I tell you the truth, 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. (Matt. 24:45–51)
As vice president, Harry Truman was locked out of President Franklin Roosevelt’s inner circle. When Roosevelt died, Truman had scant foreign policy experience and was ill prepared to lead America through the last stages of World War II and the ensuing cold war. He told a friend, “I’m not big enough for this job.” Yet he faced the challenge. When Soviet armies began to occupy eastern and central Europe and Churchill declared “an iron curtain has descended across the Continent,” Truman was at his side. Together they resisted tyranny and promoted freedom in Europe, and Truman steadily became ready for the challenges of his day.
Truman was hardly alone in his fear that he would not be ready for a challenge. We all want to be prepared for great events and we all fear that we will not. Therefore, in sports, we train for the big game, in academics we study for major exams, and in business we prepare for strategic presentations. The spiritual sphere is similar: disciples want to be ready for coming challenges. Matthew 24 equips us for just that. As a discourse, it is long and complex enough that we will greatly advance our study of the last segment (24:29–51) if we begin with a review of the earlier portions.
As the disciples left the temple and marveled at the magnificent building, Jesus told them that one day it would be no more than a pile of rocks and rubble. Within a generation, “not one stone here will be left on another” (24:2). This calamity would befall Israel as a divine punishment. The priests, elders, and Pharisees had rejected and murdered Jesus. As a consequence, they would lose their place in God’s economy, and Jerusalem and its temple would fall. Then, Jesus told the priests and the Pharisees, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit” (21:43). That “people” is the church, a spiritual nation that has no borders.
The disciples quickly asked Jesus for more information: “When will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (24:3) The disciples probably thought they were asking one question, for they expected the fall of the temple to coincide with Jesus’ return and the day of judgment. In fact, they asked and Jesus answered two questions. Most of 24:3–35 answers the first question and 24:36–51 essentially answers the second.
Ordinary Troubles, Great Troubles, and the Fall of Jerusalem
The temple, Jesus said, would be destroyed within a generation—within forty years (24:34). During that generation the disciples would face various sorrows. Every generation faces war, famine, and earthquakes; they do not signify the end of this age (24:6). Some will interpret such events as signs of Christ’s return; some will even say Christ returned secretly (24:4, 11), but disciples must disregard such reports. Jesus will return with angels and trumpets, with power and glory, summoning all men to account for their lives. No one can miss that day.
Jesus’ disciples must persevere through ordinary troubles (24:9–13). But the fall of Jerusalem was extraordinary, so he revealed the sign that would precede it. When the disciples in Judea see the Roman army—“the abomination that causes desolation”—they must “flee to the mountains” at once, without even pausing to collect the most basic possessions (24:15–20; Luke 21:20–21).
Just as Jesus said, the Roman siege ended in misery for Israel. After the starvation of the siege, the army breached the city walls, then looted, slaughtered, and burned at will. Yet because Jesus’ disciples believed his prophecy, they survived by fleeing to Pella, east of the Jordan, at Rome’s approach.2
Next, Jesus predicts a “great tribulation” (KJV, RSV, ESV) unequaled since the world began: “If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened” (24:22). During those days, false prophets and false christs will be so impressive that they will “deceive even the elect—if that were possible” (24:23–28).
Some scholars think that this “great tribulation” (the phrase appears in at most three verses: Matthew 24:21 and Revelation 2:22 and 7:14 [some translations have fewer]) refers to the fall of Jerusalem. Rome’s war with Israel did cause terrible suffering, but it is hard to conclude that it was the darkest hour in world history, so that it had to be shortened or “no one would survive.” Other scholars think that the “great distress” immediately precedes the return of Christ. A third view, which I adopt, reasons that the “great tribulation” refers to the period before the fall of Jerusalem, but also to the entire age before Christ’s return.
Our earlier studies concluded that Matthew 24:15–20 refers exclusively to the fall of Jerusalem. Matthew 24:15–20 has specific predictions about that defeat and advice for surviving it. The rest of Matthew 24, we asserted in the exposition of 24:1–14, is prophecy that has a double fulfillment, one before a.d. 70, the other preceding the return of Christ. We added that the predictions also contain principles that apply to Christians of every era, so that the woes Jesus forecast speak to every generation from the resurrection to the return of Christ. So then, Matthew 24 alternates between prophecies that apply to the entire age following the work of Christ (including the period before his return) and prophecies that strictly apply to Jesus’ generation.
That era and ours are marked by great blessing and terrible suffering. There are wars, rumors of war, famines, and earthquakes (24:6–7). Three times Jesus says false deliverers and false prophets “will deceive many” (24:5, 11, 24). Jesus’ disciples will suffer persecution, even death, and many putative disciples will deny the faith (24:9–10). Yet there is good news. The “gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (24:13–14). Further, those who stand “firm to the end will be saved” (24:13).
Jesus says his prophecies speak to all humanity (literally “all flesh”) and to “the elect” (24:22, 24), leading to the conclusion that they apply to us. That is, all the prophecies of Matthew 24:4–14 were partially fulfilled before Jerusalem fell in a.d. 70, and all have been fulfilled again in the last century. To list a few:
- We have suffered two wars and decades of “cold war” (24:6). At the moment, asymmetrical wars, also known as terrorism, are constantly in the news. Political scientists estimate that ten to twenty-five armed conflicts rack the world each year.
- Famines claimed millions of lives in Ukraine, Russia, India, and Africa (24:7).
- Christians have been persecuted in communist lands and Muslim countries (24:9).
- False prophets proliferate (24:11). Some advance false religions, some oppose all religion, others promote cults that pervert Christianity.
- Love is cold and hate strong in the genocides of the last century: the Holocaust first, then in Rwanda, Cambodia, and many other places (24:12).
- Yet the gospel advances (24:14). Slowly, it reaches ever more places and the Bible is translated into ever more languages.
This means that “the great tribulation” of 24:21 encompasses the distress of a.d. 70, the distress of the last days before Christ returns, and all the distress of disciples living in the gospel age. Every Christian martyr falls during the great tribulation (Rev. 7:13–15). To address a related phrase, we note that the New Testament often calls the period between the ascension and the return of Christ “the last days” (Acts 2:17; 2 Tim. 3:1; Heb. 1:2; James 5:3; 2 Peter 3:3). Hebrews says “the last days” began when God spoke to us through his Son. “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe” (Heb. 1:1–2).
These are the last days in the sense that there is nothing that God must yet accomplish in history other than the return of Jesus himself. There is no trigger, nothing that must happen to set the clock for Jesus’ return. Henceforth, Jesus can return at any time.
A Great Day
We have seen that Matthew 24:4–28 foretells the fall of Jerusalem and the troubles of our age. Now 24:29 seems to shift our attention to the last day: “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.” This certainly sounds like the end of human history. Truly, when Jesus returns, earth and sky will be shaken.
Yet the prophets point us to other days when the heavens change. Isaiah first used this language of darkened sun and moon, of stars falling from the sky, to describe God’s judgment on Babylon (Isa. 13:1–20). Isaiah said, “See, the day of the Lord is coming … with wrath and fierce anger” (13:9). On the day when Babylon was to be overthrown, “the stars of heaven … will not show their light. The rising sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light” (Isa. 13:10). Later, Isaiah used the same language to describe God’s judgment on Idumea (Edom), a neighboring country that opposed Israel whenever it could (Isa. 34:5–11). Ezekiel used the same images of sun, moon, and stars losing their light to describe God’s judgment, when Egypt and Pharaoh fall (see Ezekiel 32, especially 32:7–8).
A little reflection reveals why the prophets use “end of the world” language to describe God’s judgment upon a nation and its collapse. For those nations—for Babylon, Egypt, and Israel—the day of their collapse was the end of their world. It was the last day they were strong and whole. Thus their cataclysms brought a foretaste of the last day. When any great city (including Jerusalem) falls, it foreshadows the final judgment. Yet the Bible also says there will be a final judgment day for all nations (Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15; 2 Peter 3:10–11). Then the convulsion in the heavens (Matt. 24:29) will prefigure the purging of evil and the renewal of all things. A new earth, a renewed universe, will become the home of God’s people. The judgment that Jesus foretold and that came upon Jerusalem is a foretaste of the worldwide judgment that will occur when Christ returns. It resembles and foreshadows the final judgment, with its awesome manifestation of God’s wrath against sin and unbelief.
Several essential traits of the last day emerge from Matthew 24:30–31: “At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, 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.”
First, Jesus’ return will be unmistakable when he appears to all, attended by angels and trumpets, “on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory” (24:30). Second, his return will be universal. His angels “will gather his elect” from every corner of the world, wherever they may be (24:31). Third, the thought that “the nations of the earth will mourn” implies that every nation, every person, will answer to Christ. The implication is that these nations did not repent but will still render an account to him, find themselves wanting and facing judgment. This is explicit in Matthew 16:27, where Jesus says he “will reward each person according to what he has done.”
Pause to consider this. First, everyone answers to the Lord Jesus, whatever one’s origin or religion. He is Lord of all. Second, we answer to Jesus and every last thing we say or do matters to him. We will even “give account on the day of judgment for every careless [or idle] word” (12:36–37).
Consider a simple case of idle words—the talkative “morning person.” She loves to call out, “HELLO everyone! It’s a beautiful morning. The sun is smiling, the flowers are dancing, and the coffee is delicious.” Proverbs says, “If a man loudly blesses his neighbor early in the morning, it will be taken as a curse” (Prov. 27:14). So if that young woman loves her family, she will control her early morning enthusiasm. Perhaps someone else wakes up grumpy most days. If he talks, he is prone to sound irritated or angry. So he seeks solitude until he is ready for civilized society. For both people, early morning silence is an act of love that flows from the heart to the mouth. At best, that silence is even an act of faith. We watch our speech, taking care to bless each other with it, because Jesus inspires us to do so. He loves us with his mouth, and because we love him, we want to do the same.
The day of judgment, when Christ returns, is frightening for the wicked, but wonderful for those who love Jesus. He forgives our sins and we rest in him. As we trust in him, we change. We can be ourselves—in Christ.
The next section marks a shift from the description of the return of Christ in Matthew 24:30–31, to comments that wrap up Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ question about the fall of Jerusalem. Jesus says:
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. I tell you the truth, 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. (Matt. 24:32–35)
Just as spring leaves precede the summer, so the disciples know “it”—the judgment Jesus foretold—“is near” when they see “all these things” (24:33). “These things” would be the events Jesus predicted in 24:4–28, with the coming of the Roman army, “the abomination that causes desolation,” as the centerpiece.
Jesus closes the section with a vow that “this generation” will not pass until his prophecy is fulfilled. And just as he said, the temple was crushed, by Rome, within one generation. This was the cost that the keepers of the temple paid for slaying their Redeemer. Jesus underscores the power and immutability of his word in the strongest possible language. It would be easier for heaven and earth to disintegrate than for his word to fail: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (24:35). All that he says will surely come to pass.
A Great Calling
With his answer to the first question complete, Jesus moves to the second: “What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (24:3). Jesus answers that there is no sign. When Jesus returns, there will be no warning, no preliminary events. He will come like a thief in the night, when people are least prepared (24:43–44). As a result, “no one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (24:36). The implications are obvious. First, if no one knows the day, we can and should tune out those who say they do know. We should stop thinking about when Jesus returns and live as if every day could be that day. Scripture never promotes the question, “When will Christ return?” Rather it asks, “Will you be ready?”
Consider the preparation for the landfall of a hurricane. When a storm rumbles toward the coast, the media constantly forecasts when the storm will land. The better question is “Will the people be ready when it lands?” For decades everyone knew that New Orleans, with so much of its land below sea level, was vulnerable to a direct hit from a big hurricane. Residents had decades to prepare, but when Hurricane Katrina struck, the city was not ready. As a result, over a thousand citizens died, hundreds of thousands lost their homes, and the city lost most of its population. More importantly, we have a general warning that Christ will return. No one—not even Jesus himself—knows when. But we can be ready, if we trust him, seek his mercy, and live with him day by day.
A Note on Jesus’ Knowledge
Some are baffled by Jesus’ assertion that he does not know the hour of his return. If Jesus is God, how can he not know? Remember that Jesus chose to limit his divine powers when he became a man (Phil. 2:6–8). God is omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient. Jesus possessed these powers, but chose not to exercise them at most points in his ministry.
Jesus is omnipresent, yet he traveled from place to place by foot (typically) or by boat or donkey (occasionally). When Jesus wanted to go to Jerusalem, he walked. He didn’t stand in Capernaum and tell the disciples, “Since I am omnipresent, I am already in Jerusalem, so I’ll stay here and see you there when you arrive!” When he walked, he laid aside his omnipresence.
Jesus is omnipotent, yet unless he ate food, he became hungry. Without sleep, he became tired. Eventually he slept—hard (Matt. 8:23–25). He did not draw on his omnipotence to fill his empty stomach or to refresh his weary body.
Jesus is omniscient, yet he laid aside his knowledge too. Jesus asked genuine questions in the Gospels. In Mark 5:30–32, Jesus asked, “Who touched me?” and “looked around” to see who it might be. In Mark 9:16, he asked the disciples, “What are you arguing about?” In John 5:6, he asked a man how long he had been sick. On other occasions, he asked visitors, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Matt. 20:32; cf. 20:21).
Indeed, if Jesus had constantly exercised his divine attributes, he would not have led a genuine human life. If he endured no human limitations, his incarnation was a charade. If the crucifixion caused Jesus no pain, how could he suffer for us? If no bodily desires touched him, how can we say he was “tempted in every way” as we are (Heb. 4:15)?
So Jesus truly did not know when he would return. He did not need to know, nor do we. He finished his work, so he is ready to return. If we are faithful, we will be ready too. On the other hand, if we fail to stay ready, yet patient, we can easily fall into error. If we are too eager for Christ’s return, we will be deceived by false reports that he is coming tomorrow. If we are too eager, we may not be ready to live out a full life. If you think the Lord is coming in five years, why go to school? Why save money? But if we are too casual about his return, we may not remain ready every day. We should neither be frightened by dire predictions of cataclysm, nor should we act as if he will never return. We should be ready every hour—like soldiers who are ready, every hour, to defend their people.
The Days of Noah and Life on the Farm
Jesus used two images to underscore his point, one from the life of Noah, one from life on the farm:
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. (24:37–41)
Jesus assumes we know that Noah preached the coming judgment to his generation (2 Peter 2:5). Year by year, his actions proved his sincerity. Every time he lifted a hammer, the message rang out. For 120 years (Gen. 6:3) he built an ark—a great wooden box, suitable for just one thing—floating. While he worked, one day was the same as the next. There was no sign—no scattered showers—that hinted at the big rain to come. Noah’s neighbors went about their business as usual. They ate, drank, worked, and planned weddings as if entire lives stretched before them. They “knew nothing … until the flood came and took them all away” (Matt. 24:38–39). One day, without any additional warning, the floods came and took them away. Likewise, when the end of this age approaches, the world will roll on, unsuspecting that judgment is near. There will be no special warning; Jesus will return as we go about life. People will miss their wedding, the birth of their first child, graduation, retirement, by a single day, a single hour.
Next Jesus pictures two people laboring side by side in a field. Perhaps they share water and tools as they tend the same crop. Elsewhere, two women work opposite sides of a hand mill. Each pulls the wheel halfway around the circle. Turn and rest, turn and rest, they form a perfect team as they laugh, talk, and prepare the grain. In each case, “one will be taken and the other left” (Matt. 24:40–41).
Advocates of the rapture theory claim that it is good to be taken away, bad to be “left behind.” But a close reading of the text indicates the opposite. The term translated “take away” (airō) usually has overtones of violent action in Greek, and commonly means to remove, destroy, or kill. More telling still, we notice that 24:39 says that those who did not listen to Noah “knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away.” Because the available terms of Greek and English fail to match here, we can miss the fact that “took away” translates one Greek word, airō. But after the flood, Noah and his family were left behind on the earth. So the evil were taken away and the covenant family was (blessedly) left behind.8
This world is God’s good creation. The highest hope of the Christian is not to escape this world or bodily life, but to enjoy a renewed world in renewed bodies when the new Jerusalem comes down out of heaven (Rev. 21:2).
Jesus concludes with an imperative that should now be obvious: “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come” (24:42). He then illustrates the point with two short parables reiterating that he comes at an unknown time: “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” (24:43–44).
The first parable compares Jesus’ return to the coming of a thief in the night. Robbers use force; thieves use stealth. Thieves break in when the owner is unprepared, when no one is watching or even knows they should (24:43). Since Jesus comes at an unexpected time, we must always “be ready” (24:44).
The second parable envisions a master who entrusts his household to a head servant before he departs for a time:
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. I tell you the truth, 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. (Matt. 24:45–51)
If the servant in this parable is constantly faithful, the master will reward him whenever he returns (24:46–47). If he is wicked, he sees the master’s delay as an opportunity for self-indulgence—drinking and abusing his fellow servants. Forgetting that the master will eventually call him to account, he gets drunk and abuses his fellow servants (24:48–50). For him, whenever the master returns, it will be unexpected, it will be sooner than he thinks, and it will lead to severe punishment and ceaseless anguish (24:51).
In what is actually the third parable in this series, Jesus next pictures a bridegroom who is delayed (25:1–13). In this parable (discussed in the next chapter) the Lord comes later than the servant thinks. So then, Jesus comes sooner than some expect and later than others expect. Finally, some never expect Jesus at all. Yet all should prepare, for the Master will return. Our reward or punishment depends on our preparation for that day. We prepare not by hard work but by remaining faithful, full of trust in and love for the Lord day by day.
So our passage presents three great truths. First, we will see great troubles in this age. Second, this age will end in a great day, when Jesus returns with the whole world as witness. Third, we have a great calling, to stay ready to meet him every day. I recently read about scientists who were studying the intelligence of earthworms by “running” them through T-mazes. One side had food, the other sandpaper, then a shock. After five hundred repetitions, most of the earthworms usually turned to the food, although some worms never turned the right way more than half the time (making them doubly slow). We wonder why people work on such things and what the Lord (not to mention taxpayers) thinks of it. For some lab technicians, surely, it’s just a job. They care nothing for those stupid worms. But surely some believe their study will make a difference. The Lord knows this; even if the world laughs, it counts to him. Everything counts—the tender care given to an unconscious patient, the prayers spoken over a sleeping child, the honor to a rude boss. Whatever we do, if we do it in the presence of the Lord, as service to him and his world, it counts.
Two ways lie open to us. We can forget the Lord, indulge ourselves, meet him at an unknown hour and face his wrath, “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (24:51). Or we can serve our neighbors, knowing that the Lord observes every word, every deed, every affection, we offered to him. Then the master will smile when he returns and “it will be good” (24:46)—very good.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (Vol. 4, pp. 69–82). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Boice, J. M. (2001). The Gospel of Matthew (pp. 515–521). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Carson, D. A. (2010). Matthew. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, p. 572). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 France, R. T. (2007). The Gospel of Matthew (pp. 941–942). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co.
 Doriani, D. M. (2008). Matthew & 2. (R. D. Phillips, P. G. Ryken, & D. M. Doriani, Eds.) (Vol. 2, pp. 373–385). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.