The Lord is in the midst of a discourse about the future, about the circumstances that his disciples will face until he returns to the earth and brings to end human history as we know it. The “that day” in v. 36 connects what he has been saying to this next paragraph. The day he is talking about in vv. 36-51 is that day or time he has been describing in vv. 27ff., the day of the coming of the Son of Man. One of the great difficulties facing the interpretation of vv. 29-31 as referring not to the Second Coming but to the spread of the gospel after Pentecost is precisely the link between those verses and what follows after v. 36 by the phrase “that day,” because hardly anyone disputes that vv. 36-51 concern the Second Coming of Christ and the end of the age. But v. 36 indicates that these verses are talking about the same event as the previous verses have described.
v.36 It is the consistent theme of the following verses that time of the Lord’s return to earth has not been revealed and will not be known ahead of time. There will be no prior warning. Most will be caught unawares but his disciples must keep themselves ready. That is the theme of these verses.
The fact that even Jesus does not know the time of his return is a striking demonstration of the genuineness of his human nature with all the limitations of that nature still very much in place.
v.39 While Noah and his family were prepared, the rest of mankind was oblivious to the coming judgment.
v.41 As an illustration of the point made so far, two cameos of ordinary life are given: two men working in the field; two women at the mill. The verb taken in its use in Matthew suggests that the reference is to “take along with someone…” and so it suggests the salvation not the judgment of the one taken. That is, the one taken is saved; the one left is judged. Again the difference is not in what people are doing or where they are when Jesus comes, but whether they are ready for him to return.
v.42 v. 42 sums up and applies the argument so far. Keep watch; be ready because you don’t know when Jesus will return.
v.43 Burglars don’t advertise their arrival. We had several thefts this past week in the church parking lot, but no note left beforehand telling us at what hour of the night they would arrive to siphon gas from the bus or steal the battery from the van. But, absent such information, we must take care and do what we can to be ready for the burglars whenever they come. That is the point.
v.44 In view of statements like these it is astonishing that some Christians still attempt to work out the precise date of the Second Coming!
v.45 Another little parable seals the point already made.
v.51 The punishment meted out to the wicked servant in the parable reminds us that the Lord wasn’t really talking about a farmer and his servant but about all men and their fate to be determined at the end of the age. The parables that follow in chapter 25 will elaborate and emphasize this point.
“Weeping and gnashing of teeth” as a description of the eventual punishment of the wicked stands not only for the misery of the fate of those who die in unbelief but the nature of it: “the fruitless dwelling upon wasted opportunities.” [Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith, 531]
Since the Lord’s ascension to heaven, forty days after his resurrection, many Christians have supposed that he would return soon, even in their own lifetime. There is some New Testament evidence to suggest that earlier in his ministry even the Apostle Paul thought that he would be alive in the world when Christ returned. By the end of his life it is clear he knew he would die before the Second Coming. And, if that were the case, generations of Christians since have had the same experience: being sure that the end was near only eventually to realize that they would not see the Second Coming in their lifetime.
This phenomenon stems not only from wishful thinking being overtaken by realism. The Bible itself speaks sometimes in such a way that Christians can be forgiven if they believe that Christ will return very soon. Consider these statements of Paul:
“…do this, understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.” [Rom. 13:11]
“The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.” [16:20]
Or this of James:
“You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near.” [5:8]
Or this from Hebrews:
“For in just a very little while ‘He who is coming will come and will not delay…’” [10:37]
Or this from Jesus himself in the last chapter of the Bible, a statement he makes twice in a few verses:
“Behold, I am coming soon!” [Rev. 22:12, 20]
No wonder it has seemed to generation after generation of devout Christians that it must be time for the Lord to return.
But it is now some 2000 years since Christ said that he would come again to the world to gather his elect from the four winds and to punish the wicked. If “coming soon” means longer, perhaps much longer than 2000 years, how are we to understand such a statement?
Well the answer to that question begins to emerge when we notice that side by side these statements that seem to suggest that the Second Coming is imminent, could come very soon, are statements that very clearly suggest that there will be a delay, that Christ will not return to earth as quickly as people might have thought.
You have these statements here in our text about a master going on a long journey and whose slowness in returning proves a temptation to his servant. And, before this in this same Matthew 24, we have a description of the long reach of years that must follow before the end of the age: wars and rumors of wars, famines, and the preaching of the gospel to the whole world. And in Matthew 25:5 and again in v. 19 we will hear that the bridegroom or the master was a long time in coming…”
In fact, on another occasion, recorded in Luke 19:11ff. the Lord told a similar parable of a man of noble birth who went to a distant country…” And we are told that that parable was told precisely to contradict the impression that many people had that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once.
Peter actually addresses the issue head on in his second letter and, in speaking of the Second Coming and the skepticism that some had expressed precisely because it hadn’t occurred yet, he reminds his readers:
“…do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”
In any case, we have a very typical biblical dialectic. There is a sense in which he is coming quickly, a sense in which he is not. We have, in regard to the Second Coming, imminence in some passages and delay in others, often in the same authors, even the same books. And the application is precisely the one we have before us at the end of Matthew 24. We must live in the tension of not knowing when Christ will return; of being certain that he shall but not knowing when. Here in Matthew 24 and elsewhere in the New Testament we are told that we will have to remain alert, on guard, watchful, precisely because we do not know, no one knows, when Christ will return to earth, bring final salvation to his people, and judgment to the earth.
In fact, our text explains why it is right that we should not know the time of his coming again. If Christians were to have known centuries, even millennia ago, that the Lord Jesus would not return for thousands of years, it could not have helped but foster a spirit of carelessness and indifference. Not knowing leaves every generation of believers under an obligation to watch, to remain awake, which is the best possible state or condition for a heart to be in. The Lord was interested in our being awake! Paul will be as well. He will tell the Thessalonian Christians the same thing: “So then, let us not be like others who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled.” And what will make us so? It is the same here as in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians: the prospect of Christ’s coming again. The fact of it, the prospect of it, no matter when it will happen, concentrates the mind and keeps it alert.
As it was with Noah and his contemporaries, there was a time of waiting, in that case quite a long time, and then a sudden catastrophe. The point is precisely that it was too late to seek salvation, too late to serve the Lord once the rain began to fall. It will be too late to seek the Lord when the sign of the Son of Man appears in the sky.
In a particularly noble passage in one of his sermons, in fact a sermon entitled “Christ Coming Quickly,” the 19th century Scottish Presbyterian Robert Candlish said,
“To a believer, the mere possibility, or even absolute certainty, of ages being yet to elapse before the Lord comes again, ought no more to diminish the influence of that event upon his mind, and heart, and conscience, than the fact of ages having elapsed since the Lord came at first lessens the moral weight of his constant vivid sight of Christ and him crucified…. I know no chronology and no chronological computation of long eras, in dealing with that Savior, who eighteen hundred years ago trod with his blessed feet the soil of Judea, and expired on the cross of Calvary. Then why should there be any real difficulty in applying this principle in the prospect, more than in the retrospect? Does faith mounting up in the ascending series of years to the opening up of the fountain, long centuries ago, lose all sense of distance and remoteness, in the bright and vivid apprehension of the cross? And will not the same faith in its keen glance downwards and onwards along the stream of time, seize the one great and only object of its hope, and bring it near, even to the very door, ay, though ages may seem to come in between? … These are the two events, the death of shame, the coming in glory, which faith, when rightly exercised, grasps; which I, believing, grasp. I grasp them as equally real, equally near. Christ dying, near and present, Christ coming, near and present. What though ages have run since that death and ages more are perhaps to run before that coming! It is nothing to me. The world’s history, past and future; the church’s history, past and future; all is to me for the present as if it never had been and never were to be…. Wherever I am, whatever I am about, ought I not to be alive to my position between these two manifestations of Christ and these alone? Behind me Christ dying; before me Christ coming. Is it not thus, and only thus, that I live by the faith of him who loved me and gave himself for me; that I live also by the power of the world to come; enduring as seeing him who is invisible?” [Cited in I. Murray, The Puritan Hope, 215-216]
That is the idea of our text beautifully put in another way. And so it has been for endless generations of Christ’s followers. They have lived with a view to the Lord’s coming again and the end of the world as we know it; with a view to the eternal life and eternal woe that begins when Christ returns. Here is St. Patrick in the long ago 5th century:
“God heard my prayers so that I, foolish though I am, might dare to undertake such a holy and wonderful mission in these last days – that I, in my own way, might be like those God said would come to preach and be witness to the good news to all nonbelievers before the end of the world.” [Cited in Freeman, St. Patrick of Ireland, 125]
Patrick was not some strange fellow who walked the streets of Ireland carrying a sign proclaiming the end of the world. He didn’t necessarily believe that the world would end in his lifetime. In fact, he made elaborate preparations for the work of the gospel to continue in Ireland after he had died. But he thought of his work in terms of the great day of the Lord. He knew the day of salvation was drawing to a close. He knew that the Second Coming was a fixed date that was drawing nearer every day. It was the great fact that kept him thinking about his life and work in terms of its eternal significance.
Or come down closer to our time. Henry Thornton was a banker and a member of what was called “the Clapham Sect,” the group of ardent Christian men, a number of them members of parliament, the most famous of whom was William Wilberforce, whose Christian commitment motivated them to move heaven and earth to end slavery in the British empire and to work toward other forms of social justice as well as to spread the gospel through the world. The young Prime Minister, William Pitt, once asked Henry Thornton why he had voted against him on one occasion in parliament. Thornton replied,
“I voted today so that if my Master had come again at that moment I might have been able to give an account of my stewardship.” [In Stott, The Incomparable Christ, 173]
The English journalist and historian, the socialist R.C.K. Ensor, no evangelical Christian himself, writing about evangelical religion in Victorian England, said,
“…its certainty about the existence of an after-life of rewards and punishments [was an essential feature]. If one asks how nineteenth-century English merchants earned the reputation of being the most honest in the world…the answer is: because hell and heaven seemed as certain to them as tomorrow’s sunrise, and the Last Judgment as real as the week’s balance-sheet.” 
This is the Lord’s point. The conviction of the Lord’s coming again, the certainty that his return will bring an end to this age, and that following hard upon his Second Coming will be the beginning of eternal bliss or eternal woe for all men, that conviction ought to keep us not only awake, alert, mindful, but careful to live our lives as we are going to want to have lived them when that day dawns, whether in our lifetime or many lifetimes from now.
How much would change if only people could see far in the distance the Lord Christ descending from heaven with the heavenly hosts in his train. But men are all unaware of the one thing that must absolutely define their lives. The Lord has not returned these many generations and they have lost all thought of his coming. As the Lutheran theologian John Gerhard once put it, “Oblivio huius iudicii est mater securitatis.” [Loci Theologici, xix, 300.} It is a mark of human life generally in our day that men live with no sense of a coming day of reckoning. My daughter and son-in-law are to begin an evangelistic study in their home this Tuesday. One of Bryonie’s colleagues at work had agreed to come, but the other day she changed her mind. She explained to Bryonie that she didn’t feel any need for God in her life right now.
How differently people live when they don’t know or don’t take care to know what catastrophe is coming. We know very well how so many things would now be different, so much better, for so many, many people, if only they had known that Katrina would hit the Gulf Coast as she did and would wreck the destruction that she did. But, as in the days of Noah, it was too late to take the proper steps once the winds and waves were crashing into the cities and towns along the coast and once the dykes had been breached in New Orleans. There was, of course, never anything to be done to prevent the catastrophe. But so much could have been done by so many people to escape it themselves. But they didn’t heed the warnings. They didn’t take seriously the prospect of coming disaster.
But if this principle holds in the case of a hurricane, how much more does it apply to the Second Coming and the end of the age! If one lives his life ignorant of the way in which human life will end, forgetful of the issue of human life, of the eternity that stretches beyond the return of Jesus Christ, if he pays no attention to the warning that many will be, must be consigned to the place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, then how differently one must live his life.
How could it not be so? If there is looming before and above us this great day of doom, and if we saw that prospect clearly, and took to heart the certainty of its coming, then, of course, our lives must change, our decisions must be made differently, our view of this world and our life in this world must be revolutionized, our priorities must be radically readjusted. How could it be otherwise? It is only when one does not believe that the flood is coming that he remains unconcerned and unknowing in the field or she at the mill. There they go about their business, their utterly futile and ultimately worthless activities, all unaware that field and mill will, in a few moments, exist no more.
The issue is one’s readiness to welcome the coming Lord Jesus. That is the defining issue of every human life. And it is so because Jesus is coming again to take his people to himself in glory and to judge the unbelieving world and assign its punishment. That such a day is coming is a certainty; we have the Lord Christ’s word for it. When it will come we do not know and that means that we must be ready at any and every moment.
In his God (A Play), Woody Allen writes, “The trick is to start at the ending when you write a play. Get a good strong ending and then write backwards.” Well, exactly. And what is true of a play is true of every human life. It is the ending that determines, that makes interesting and important the story from its beginning. It is the ending that determines what significance there is to the story. It is the ending that determines what we are going to think of the story when it is done. Albert Camus was saying something of the same thing when he wrote that “death is philosophy’s only problem.’ You can’t know the meaning, the significance of anything if you don’t know how things end, how the story turns out, what ultimately happens to everyone and everything. Well death is one end, but it is not the ultimate end. The ultimate end, the end that determines the meaning of all that leads up to it is the Second Coming of Jesus Christ and the end of the age that occurs when Jesus returns to earth.
Well, we have been told the ending. Christ Jesus is coming again. He will bring salvation and judgment with him. Eternal weal or woe awaits every human being on that day. That is the ending. It is now ours to write the play. But our play must rise to the significance of such an ending as that. It can’t be a dull, uninteresting, insignificant pointless story that all unknowing leads up to such a catastrophe. If it would be a play worthy of that ending, it must be a story that has that ending in view and is leading up to it with eyes open. That is the Lord’s point.
How tragic to live one’s life without regard to the end of the world and the issue of human existence. To live as if somehow everything will continue as it always has, or, to live with no serious thought of the future. When the world will end as it will, no human life can be rightly lived, authentically lived, happily lived, usefully lived that is not lived in light of and for that ending.