I’m going to depart this morning from my ordinary practice of commenting on the text as I read it. It is a longer text, as you see, and so loaded with material that begs for comment it would be difficult to get through it and still have time for the sermon. While there is much in the way of details we will miss, insofar as it is, as always, the main drift of the Lord’s teaching that I want to concentrate on, this morning we will leave the details unremarked upon.
What we are about to read is usually referred to as the “Olivette Discourse” because in Matthew 24 we read that the Lord Jesus delivered this teaching while sitting on the Mount of Olives with his disciples, a vantage point from which they could see both the temple and the city spread out before them
One comment. Always remember that when we read of God’s wrath in the Bible we are to understand not simply anger, but always that judicial punishment that is the expression of God’s justice. Divine wrath is deserved, righteous, and perfectly measured. Whenever you hear the word wrath in reference to God remember this is a way of speaking of divine holiness expressing itself toward sin.
The other morning Florence and I went to church, a different church than we usually go to but many of you were there as well. While we were walking into church, one of you was asking Florence if we would serve soft drinks with dinner that afternoon but when she attempted to say that while we didn’t usually we certainly could, I told her to be quiet. We had to drive closer to the church for some reason, park, and then go to the communion service. They were serving the elements — the bread was the old fashioned pre-cut white bread — with sterile medical gloves. Afterward we had some difficulty finding our car. We used the keyless entry remote control but ended up in the Gross’ car because they had apparently clicked theirs at precisely the same time as we had ours. It was a strange morning. Or, at least, it was in Florence’s head, because that was her dream Friday morning which she related to me in detail upon awaking. She often does this. And I often ask her “Did it ever occur to you in your dream how ridiculous this was?” And she typically replies, “No, not really.”
Dreams are funny that way. They seem so real at the moment, but actually have nothing whatsoever to do with reality. They are, in fact, a parody of reality. In Psalm 73, if you remember, Asaph describes the wicked as a dream that God has, which when he wakes up he counts as nothing. Asaph had envied the wicked, he admits. He had wanted the life they live. But then, he says, when at worship in God’s house, he had been overwhelmed with the realization of their end, of what is to become of them, and that made him suddenly and wonderfully glad to be a child of God. In other words, he had been dreaming and he woke up! The wicked too live in a dream; they imagine a world, no, they live in a world that doesn’t actually exist. The Bible is always saying that their world is a world given over to death and judgment. That is reality. But they are oblivious; they don’t think of this, they don’t reckon with it, they don’t live as if it were so, but, in fact, they are rushing to judgment, or, better, divine wrath is hurtling toward them. They are in a dream from which they have not yet awakened.
Every now and then a premonition of doom, a catastrophe that overwhelms great numbers of people suddenly and unexpectedly will shake their foundations — after 9/11 people poured into churches — but they go back to sleep soon enough and pick up their dream where they left off.
This impending doom, this Götterdammerung, this unexpected awakening to a genuine nightmare out of a dream is the subject of the Lord’s Olivette discourse. I must, however, say a few things about the interpretation of the Lord’s remarks before considering their point and purpose.
This is a passage of Holy Scripture, together with its parallels in Matthew and Mark that has been interpreted in various ways for rather obvious reasons. Luke, as we have seen him do elsewhere in his Gospel, has given us a more summary report of a longer discourse. You have only to compare Luke with Matthew 24 to see both that Luke has shortened the whole account and that he has spent more of his time on the first part of the discourse than on the second. That is important because most commentators accept that the Lord had two horizons in view as he spoke of the future: the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in A.D. 70, in the first place, and his Second Coming and the consummation of history in the second.
That is clearer in Matthew than in Luke though, as we will see, it is clear enough in Luke. Indeed, in Matthew 24:3 we read, as we do here, that the entire discourse was prompted by the Lord’s remark that the temple they so much admired would be destroyed. His disciples then asked him: “Tell us when will these things be and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” They may not have realized that they were asking about two different events that would be separated from one another by thousands of years, that they were, in fact, asking two separate questions, but in fact they were and he answered both questions. The phrase “the close” or “the end of the age” elsewhere in the Gospels — we have only “end” here in v. 9 — refers explicitly to the Lord’s Second Coming at the end of history. For example, in the Great Commission, at the very end of the Gospel of Matthew, the Lord promised to with his church to the “end of the age” (the same phrase the disciples used when asking Jesus what would be the sign of the end of the age). And in the parable of the weeds in Matthew 13, the harvest of the wheat and its separation from the weeds is said to take place at the end of the age (the very same phrase) when the angels will gather the Lord’s harvest.
There is nothing unusual, in fact, about a prophetic depiction of the future in two horizons, one nearer, another more distant. In fact this is a very typical feature of biblical prophecy. It occurs so often in prophetic texts that it has a name: it is called either “prophetic foreshortening” or “the prophetic perspective.” The biblical author surveys the future as a whole, a unity and does not necessarily divide it into a succession of distinct events separated from one another by many years. In Isaiah 13, for example, the judgment of Babylon is predicted, but seamlessly and suddenly the prophet is speaking of the judgment of the entire world and of all mankind. Babylon would be punished and so the world will be; the first is an anticipation of the second, but both are seen by the prophet from his vantage point as a single future. As I said, it is by no means unusual for the Bible to speak of the future in this undifferentiated way and no discredit to the authority of its prophecy. We talk about the future this way all the time and know exactly what we are doing. We often talk about the past in this same way.
If, for example, I were to say that at the beginning of the 19th century two Englishmen would appear who would stop the advance of Napoleon and crush his empire, I would be stating as a unity events that, in fact, transpired over a number of years. Many battles would be fought, Trafalgar and Waterloo only the greatest and most decisive of them, and I’ve said nothing about that. I have said nothing about the birth, the youth, or the development of the two English heroes, Nelson and Wellington, nor have I said when they would first engage the French fleet or army. I didn’t even mention that one was an admiral and one a general, nor did I state the number of battles that would have to be fought or the number of years it would take finally to vanquish the great French emperor. Nor did I mention that between Trafalgar and Waterloo would fall Napoleon’s first defeat, his exile, his return and the hundred days. But, what I said was true, was a fair summary of the history, and, more to the point, the material thing that had to be known if only the great and final result were to be stated. Well biblical prophecy is everywhere like that; it is, at the last, not really interested much in the details, but in the great sweeping vision of the future, the way history will turn out in summary. And so that is the way the future is predicted in the Bible. There are a few details, but only a few, enough to prove that God knows those too in advance.
Well so it is here. In the Olivette discourse the Lord spoke both of the destruction of Jerusalem and of his Second Coming as an undifferentiated future. Many of you will be aware that this interpretation has been challenged in recent years by a new breed of post-millennialists who have argued that there is little or no reference to the Second Coming in the Olivette discourse; that the Lord was, in fact, predicting and describing only the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in A.D. 70. This is known as the “preterist” interpretation (from the Latin word for “past”) because its advocates maintain that everything the Lord talked about here has already happened; it all lies in the past. So, when the Lord spoke in vv. 25-27 of the signs in the heavens and the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory, he was using biblical figures of speech to describe his coming to Jerusalem in judgment in A.D. 70.
The chief argument for this interpretation is the statement of v. 32 that “this generation will not pass away until all has taken place.” Obviously if the generation of men to whom the Lord was then speaking would live to see the events he was describing take place, then he couldn’t be talking about his Second Coming, which still hasn’t taken place after a great many generations have come and gone.
I won’t take time to explain this in detail, but, for many commentators, that argument is not as strong as it may at first seem. Even more clearly in Matthew than in Luke, the Lord’s remark may refer only to one of the two horizons, the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and not to the second horizon, the Second Coming and the end of the age. Remember, the disciples asked two questions, not just one. Other things might be said. But it seems evident to me that even here in Luke there are clearly references to more than simply the destruction of Jerusalem some 40 years later. In v. 24, for example, we are told that Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. But the contemporaries of the Lord did not live to see that. We have not yet lived to see that. Or there is the statement in v. 35 about the day of doom coming suddenly upon all those who dwell on the face of the earth, which, I think, is doubtfully a reference to the destruction of one Jewish city. And, again, the language of vv. 25-28, which certainly could be a figurative reference to the judgments of A.D. 70, is found in the rest of the New Testament and always in reference to the Second Coming of the Lord. So, it seems clear to me that the Lord has before him in the text we have read two horizons, one nearer, another more distant: the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Coming. And the reason they are one undifferentiated future is because the one is the instance of the other. The former is the anticipation of the latter.
But what is altogether clear is that his message is redolent of fire and brimstone, of judgment, of punishment, of catastrophic and overwhelming destruction. Judgment and disaster is the Lord’s theme here. Even in respect to the Second Coming, what he calls the day of our redemption in v. 28, the emphasis falls on warning. Even believers are warned, as in v. 34, not to let that day come upon them unawares.
It is in this sense that the two horizons are brought so easily together. The one judgment — that of the Jewish people for the rejection of the Messiah — was a foreshadowing of the greater judgment of all unbelievers at the end of the world. In a similar way, as you may remember, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in ancient times was often used by biblical writers as an illustration of what divine judgment will be like when it falls upon the whole world. So too the destruction in 721 B.C. of the northern kingdom and its capital, Samaria, by the Assyrians and of the southern kingdom and the first destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. In each case the instrument of the destruction is inconsequential — natural disaster, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Romans — it is God who is judging sinners. We learn from these prototypical judgments the reality, the inevitability, the finality, and the ferocity of the divine wrath. Just as God shows us the nature of his salvation in great events such as the exodus from Egypt or the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, so he models for us his judgment in such events in human history. So it was only natural for him to proceed to the larger more universal judgment from his description of the imminent destruction of the city of Jerusalem. The prophets had often done the same thing before him.
And no wonder. The brutal Roman response to the Jewish rebellion of A.D. 66, and the total destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 after a long siege was nothing short of horrifying. There were the battles about the walls of the city, of course. But that was child’s play compared to the suffering imposed upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem by the siege. Famine began to claim its victims by the scores and then the hundreds. The dead began to pile up in the streets because there were not enough men able or willing to bury them. The stench of rotting human flesh became the curse of daily life in the city. Then came the terrible corruption of human nature that invariably occurs in desperate times. Jews turned on one another, robbed or assaulted one another in a mad frenzy for food or enough money to bribe their way through the Roman lines. And then, finally, came the cannibalism: mothers cooking and eating their own children to survive. No wonder the Lord should have predicted in v. 23 the “great distress” that would befall the city and its inhabitants.
It has long been pointed out that as the Lord’s public ministry came to its close, and we’re very near to the very end of it here, the theme of divine judgment, of the threat of God’s wrath began more and more to occupy his mind and surface in his teaching. Some of his most solemn teaching about the judgment of mankind was given in those days, from Monday through Wednesday of the Passion Week. But it is hardly only here that we find this teaching. The Bible is full of it from beginning to end.
The late John Gerstner, one of the most learned theologians of the 20th century, reported that a friend of his did a master’s thesis, more statistical than theological, in which he concluded that for every reference to God’s mercy in the Bible (OT and NT) there are three references to his wrath. Now, I’ve never gone to the trouble to count them up, but I have no reason to doubt Dr. Gerstner’s report. It makes sense: as easy it is for us to believe in God’s mercy and love it is as hard for us to believe in his holy wrath, what Isaiah calls his “strange and alien work.”
But no reader of the Bible can doubt the place that the divine judgment of sinners has either in the history recounted in Holy Scripture or in its forecast of the future. We find it everywhere! The biblical histories are full of it; the sermons of the prophets likewise. We find that wrath being visited upon Israel and upon the nations of the world. No one, however vaunted at the time ever, escapes it.
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half-sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Osymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’
So Shelley on the Egyptian Pharoah Rameses II. But what makes that unbroken record of divine judgment so important is this: that the fall of peoples and nations, the punishments visited upon individuals and societies in human history are only a pledge, a foretaste, an anticipation, of a far greater judgment to come.
But the fact is, no one, Christians included, hardly ever thinks about this judgment. It is the appalling prospect that looms over human life but mankind lives as it were in a dream. Its understanding of life is irreal. People imagine all manner of silly things about life and will until they wake up and, then, they may find that it is too late. Precisely the Lord’s warning here! The western world in which we live has managed to make divine judgment literally an unthinkable, preposterous idea. It has, in other words, turned reality into a dream and a dream into reality. People do worry about things, about a lot of things, but they don’t worry about God judging the world and, in particular, they don’t worry about themselves having to face the judgment of the Almighty. People worry about everything but that! There may be judgment around us everywhere we look, we may see people being swept away in natural disasters, falling prey to the terrible evil that men do, suffering the consequences of their own sins. I say, this world is chock full of foreshadows of judgment. We may actually witness, as we have in our day, the fall of great nations and powers, brought low as a consequence of their own sins, but no one draws the obvious lesson. No one connects that judgment to his or her own judgment. It has always been so, but never any more so than now.
The Jews didn’t live in fear of the judgment of God. They were self-satisfied, and, as events would prove not so many years later, many of them were literally living in a dream. They actually thought they could send the Romans packing! The reality they discovered when once they woke up was they never stood a chance. All their rebellion accomplished was to infuriate the Romans and make them determined to destroy the Jewish state once and for all, which is what they did, leaving Jerusalem, until then one of the great cities of the world, a heap of smoldering rubble littered with the dead as a warning to others.
That is what wishful thinking gets you. We think of ourselves as so sophisticated, so urbane, so modern, so educated. But the fact is we believe, as human beings have always believed, what we want to believe. We live in an age, history will judge, of almost inconceivable credulity. No period of human history has surpassed ours for its capacity to believe anything, I mean anything if it suits our fancy.
People believe that the vast array of nature and of human life, in all of its impossible complexity and wonder, is the result of a series of chemical and biological accidents. People believe that the conscience and its invincible grip on human life is a mirage, another of those products of time and chance. People believe that a society can be successfully sustained on a foundation of promiscuity, pornography, and moral relativism. People believe that human evil will submit itself to gentle statecraft. And on and on it goes. And people believe this even though human history provides no evidence to corroborate such beliefs. People do not believe they will be judged no matter all the terrible judgments that have befallen other societies before us and are befalling other societies as we speak. This is not sophistication, my friends. This is the Jews thinking they were stronger than the Romans. And the result is altogether predictable. Our society won’t escape judgment any more than any other society has. And that should make us realize that final judgment is just as certain.
Have you ever noticed this? Human beings unwittingly assent to the reality of final moral judgment without even realizing they are doing so. They have the witness to it in their own hearts. Have you noticed that when good people die — I mean people others assume to have been good people — it is assumed that they have gone to a better place? Virtually everyone thinks this way. But no one assumes that in the case of villains! You never hear someone say that after Hitler committed suicide and his body was soaked in gas and burned in the Chancellery garden he went to a happier place. No one envisages Hitler and Bin Laden and the Green River killer in heaven mixing with our loved ones, exchanging cheerful greetings with them in some forest glade by some pure flowing river. No one believes that. No one can! Our own consciences tell us that judgment is coming and our refusal to reckon with the implications of that is proof that we are living a dream.
The Jews weren’t villains either, not in the way we think of villains. They were ordinary people, many of them devoutly religious, patriotic family types. But they were definitely sinners, as became unmistakably clear when the pressure was applied, and when they rejected their Savior when he came among them they rejected the salvation of God. And for that they suffered the wrath of God in a way meant to show us how all men without Christ must suffer that divine wrath in due time.
People often say that they would believe in God if only he would reveal himself. As Woody Allen put it, “If only God would give me some clear sign, like making a large deposit in my name at some Swiss Bank.” Or, as Norwood Russell Hanson, until his premature death the philosopher of science at Yale, put it:
“I’m not a stubborn guy. I would be a theist under some conditions. I’m open-minded…. Okay. The conditions are these: Suppose, next Tuesday morning, just after breakfast, all of us in this one world are knocked to our knees by a percussive and ear-shattering thunderclap. Snow swirls, leaves drop from trees, the earth heaves and buckles, buildings topple and towers tumble. The sky is ablaze with an eerie silvery light, and just then, as all of the people of this world look up, the heavens open, and the clouds pull apart, revealing an unbelievably radiant and immense Zeus-like figure towering over us like a hundred Everests. He frowns darkly as lightning plays over the features of his Michelangeloid face, and then he points down, at me, and explains for every man, woman, and child to hear: ‘I’ve had quite enough of your too-clever logic chopping…in matters of theology. Be assured, Norwood Russell Hanson, that I do most certainly exist!’” [Cited in Moreland (ed.), The Creation Hypothesis, 117]
Well forget for a moment Hanson’s megalomania, as if he, of all people, deserved God’s personal attention; forget the cartoon he paints; forget his utter failure to deal with the arguments for God’s existence that have satisfied men far smarter than he; and what you are left with is the thunderclap: Jerusalem at the end of A.D. 70, a ruin, and ten thousand times ten thousand other such demonstrations of divine justice and wrath, on the scale of the individual life and on the scale of entire nations and societies. The thunderclap has been heard often enough by everyone. It is the hands over the ears, or better, the sounds of snoring that tell the tale!
Better than Woody Allen or Norwood Hansen is this from Peter Hitchens, the British journalist and brother of the celebrated atheist, the late Christopher Hitchens. Describing how it was that his atheism collapsed and that he found faith in Jesus Christ, he recounts a trip to France with his girlfriend years ago, a visit to a town in Burgundy, and to the one famous piece of art in that town, which their guidebook strongly recommended that they see, Rogier van der Weyden’s fifteenth-century The Last Judgment.
“I scoffed. Another religious painting! Couldn’t these people think of anything else to depict? Still scoffing, I peered at the naked figures fleeing toward the pit of hell, out of my usual faintly morbid interest in the alleged terrors of damnation. But this time I gaped, my mouth actually hanging open. These people did not appear remote or from the past; they were my own generation. Because they were naked, they were not imprisoned in their own age by time-bound fashions. On the contrary, their hair and, in an odd way, the set of their faces were entirely in the style of my own time. They were me and the people I knew. One of them — and I have always wondered how the painter thought of it — is actually vomiting with shock and fear at the sound of the Last Trump.
“I did not have a ‘religious experience.’ Nothing mystical or inexplicable took place — no trance, no swoon, no vision, no voices, no blaze of light. But I had a sudden, strong sense of religion being a thing of the present day, not imprisoned under thick layers of time. A large catalogue of misdeeds, ranging from the embarrassing to the appalling, replayed themselves rapidly in my head. I had absolutely no doubt that I was among the damned, if there were any damned.
“And what if there were? How did I know there were not? I did not know. I could not know. Van der Weyden was still earning his fee, nearly 500 years after his death.”
“Those who do not feel [such fear] are in permanent peril because they cannot see the risks that lie at their feet.” [The Rage Against God, 102-104]
No wonder the Bible’s relentless insistence on our facing this fact. “Prepare to meet your God,” cried Amos. “Flee from the wrath to come,” called out John the Baptist. “May you find mercy from the Lord on that day,” prayed Paul the Apostle. “Be always on the watch and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen,” warned the Lord Jesus himself.
Those of you who have been in the Sistine chapel and seen Michelangelo’s "Last Judgment" will remember the impact of that painting: the wailing of the lost, the dawning of doom on the faces of those who had dreamed a dream of their own goodness and safety. It seems far away from the busy pace of our life, and the pleasures of this world, and the easy mixture of Christians and non-Christians in both the world and the church. But, if it is true…? And have we any reason to believe it is not? Living as we do in a world that rings with judgment every day? When our Savior warned us of that coming day just a few days before he was to die for our sins?
There are two futures, two destinies, and so there are two kinds of people in this world. All else is a dream, like all dreams utterly detached from reality. When the great day dawns and a man or woman awakes to find himself or herself without Christ, terror-struck in the face of God’s judgment; what then? And what do you suppose you will think and how do you suppose you will feel if on that day you find that you are among the sheep, that you will go to Christ’s right hand and not his left. What joy and gratitude and love will fill your heart then; what excitement at what is to come next.
I want to remember the Last Judgment every hour of every day that I live in this world. Every hour of every single day!