Remember, the Lord has just spoken of impending judgment upon Jerusalem and Israel. In these past days he has spoken darkly more than once of divine judgment awaiting the people of God for their infidelity to him. There is an atmosphere of foreboding that pervades the Lord’s teaching in the last days of his ministry. His disciples have heard all of this. His strange words have very naturally made them curious to know more.
v.34 This statement is one of the most difficult and confusing of all the prophetic statements found in the New Testament. There are, as you may imagine, many interpretations of this statement that “this generation will not pass away until all these things have happened.” After all, the generation of the 12 disciples is long gone but Christ has not yet returned. Some get round the problem by arguing that Matt. 24:1-35 is not about the second coming and says nothing about the Lord’s return. It is only about the events of A.D. 70, the destruction of Jerusalem, and the gospel mission to follow, so v. 34 is simply true. That generation didn’t pass away until everything foretold in the chapter had come to pass. In that case the description of the Lord coming in the clouds and the gathering of the elect is actually not a prophecy of the second coming but a figurative way of speaking of the progress of the gospel through the world, of the church’s evangelistic mission following Pentecost. I am not persuaded that we should read vv. 29-31 in that way for a number of reasons. For example, the same words used here are used both elsewhere in Matthew and elsewhere in the New Testament to describe what is indubitably the second coming. It is hard to believe that they mean something quite different only here. What is more, I regard as a virtually fatal objection to this interpretation of v. 34 the fact that in Luke 21:32 where, in the parallel passage, the same statement is made about this generation not passing away until…, the statement is made after the description of things that were plainly not completed before that first Christian generation passed away. For example, the statement in Luke 21:24: “Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” is another of those things that must be fulfilled before that generation passes away, but by any reading of the New Testament the times of the Gentiles are still not fulfilled. Many commentators hold that the “all these things” must, in the context, be limited to the things that have been discussed that will happen in the time of that generation, viz. the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. In that case, the current generation would not pass away before Jerusalem is destroyed, but the second coming is not included in the “all these things.” Others suggest that “this generation” is a reference to the people who oppose and persecute the church and this is a promise that we will always have such people to deal with [Morris ad loc]. Others propose that “this generation” is a reference to the Jews and amounts to a promise that God will preserve his ancient people. As I said, it is difficult. But what is new in that? The prophetic material in the Bible is often difficult to interpret which is why through the ages good men and fine biblical scholars have not agreed on the interpretation of many passages. The difficulty of this material is precisely why there are premillennialists, postmillennialists and amillennialists. And the fact that we have all three of those viewpoints represented in this congregation is illustration enough that like-minded people find it difficult to come to agreement about the precise interpretation of biblical prophecy.
Now I could treat this text as it is very often treated in preaching – as a canvas on which to paint my own understanding of the future as the Bible predicts it. I could explain how premillennialists and amillennialists interpret the Olivette Discourse, on the one hand, and how postmillennialists interpret it on the other. I could evaluate the arguments and tell you which are persuasive to me. But, were I to do this, I would be turning into a mere curiosity one of the most grand and solemn pieces of the Lord’s Passion Week teaching. I would run the risk of tickling our fancy while ignoring the great issues so obviously raised by the Lord in his teaching about the future. After all, the Lord had just said that the great temple, the grandest sight in Jerusalem from the viewpoint they then enjoyed on the Mount of Olives to the east, would soon lie in ruins, not one stone left on another. That was a terrible thing for those Jewish men to hear. What they asked were not merely academic questions. They wanted to know about the judgment of God. They wanted to know what lay ahead for themselves, for their people, and for their nation. It would be something like someone in New Orleans a year ago hearing that very soon the entire city would be enveloped by a terrible storm and that the entire population of the city would be left homeless and the city herself left desolate. No one would hear that news without great personal concern. How much more we ought to listen to the Lord’s forecast of the future not with curiosity but with concern.
So let me say this one thing in regard to the interpretation of the Lord’s teaching, by which I mean, our understanding of what he meant to say about the future. With many other students of this passage, I take the Lord in this long section to be answering two questions. After all, the disciples asked two questions in v. 3: when will the temple be destroyed and what will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age? To be sure, they may well have thought when they asked their questions that the two events would be contemporaneous. It was a natural assumption, so natural that, as I said, there is a school of interpretation today that takes the two questions to be merely two ways of asking the same thing. But I am not persuaded. It seems to me that one clear point of interpretation is that “end of the age” refers to the end of history when Christ comes again. It does not refer to the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. If his disciples thought that the end of the age would occur when the temple was destroyed, Jesus and Matthew following him did not take that view. I have many reasons for this but I will mention this one.
While it may be possible to take “end of the age” in v. 3 to mean “end of the OT epoch” or “end of the age in which Israel is a nation,” so that the “end” spoken of came in A.D. 70 when Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed, this is not the way the phrase is used in Matthew. In Matt. 13:39-43, in the Lord’s explanation of the parable of the wheat and the tares, the phrase is used of the harvest at the “end of the age” and no one denies that there it means the second coming of Jesus Christ. Again, in the very last verse of the Gospel of Matthew, 28:20, Jesus promises his disciples that he will be with them always, until the end of the age. If you ask how that phrase, “end of the age,” is used in Matthew, the answer seems rather clearly to be that it refers to the end of age that separates Christ’s two comings, and that, therefore, the end of the age is a reference not to A.D. 70 and the destruction of Jerusalem, but to the second coming of Christ. Enough on the prophetic interpretation of this passage. I believe we have an account here that takes us to the end of history in the ordinary sense of the word, to the return of Jesus Christ. You have, in other words, a very typical prophetic foreshortening. As in so many other texts in the Bible that predict the future, the distant future is brought near to our view, “the far distant mountains of the eternal world, visible beyond and above the near hills of time in the foreground [lack] the dim-blue haze, which helps the eye realize how far off they are,” [Bruce, The Training of the Twelve, 327] The long reach of intervening years is forgotten. It is as if we see only two events separated from one another by only a short time: the destruction of Jerusalem and the second coming of Christ. In fact they are separated by a great many years – 2000 so far – by the rise and fall of civilizations and by the passing of unnumbered generations of God’s people.
It would not be the first time that a local and partial judgment, such as the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, would be in biblical teaching an anticipation of, a picture of, a foretaste of the far greater judgment at the end of the world. It was so often enough in OT prophecy and perhaps it is so again here in Matthew 24.
Or perhaps not. It is true that Jesus began by saying that the temple would be destroyed and his disciples asked him when this would occur. In other parallels to this text in Matthew 24, for example in Luke 21:20-24, similar language is used to describe what is unmistakably the destruction of Jerusalem, a prophecy fulfilled in A.D. 70. The description in Matthew is significantly different however, is given a different context, and that has led many to conclude that the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70 was, in the Lord’s mind, a prefigurement of the great tribulation that would occur at the end of the world. Many have concluded that here in Matt. 24:15ff. we are given, in language taken from the prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, a prophecy of a still greater persecution at the end of the age that will presage the Lord’s second coming. That is, as I said, something we are well used to in biblical prophecy, of course. A day of the Lord that heralds the still greater day of the Lord. The account of the destruction of Jerusalem and the account of the catastrophe of the end of the age and the return of Christ are described in similar language and, in some texts, even brought together in a single vision of the future. That is only what we would expect. So, in Matthew 24 we have either the destruction of A.D. 70 brought closely together with the end of the age, or nothing more than simply the statement that Jerusalem would be destroyed, in v. 2, and the rest of the discourse concerned with the events of the end of the age, with the description of the great tribulation at the end given in terms reminiscent of those used to describe the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. It is perhaps not so important to choose between those alternatives.
It is more important to ask ourselves what is the Lord after here. He is not concerned, it does not appear that he is much concerned about our debates about the millennium and where it fits in biblical prophecy. Giving us ahead of time a precise chronology of the end of the world never seems to be the real interest of biblical prophecy. The Lord seems rather to be concerned to prepare his disciples for difficulties to come. Look again:
- Watch out that no one deceives you…
- You will hear of wars and rumors of wars…
- Nation will rise against nation…there will be famines…
- You will be persecuted and put to death…hated by all…
- Many will turn from the faith…
- False prophets will appear and deceive many people…
- The increase of wickedness will cause the love of many to grow cold
- How dreadful will it be in those days of persecution…
- False Christs will appear and perform signs that would deceive the elect were that possible…
What is being said? What is being promised to his disciples by the Lord in this memorable account of things to come? I will tell you: wave upon wave of difficulty, of trouble, of sorrow, and of pain. A sorrow and pain so intense that it has the capacity to make a professed Christian abandon his faith. Some of it will be trouble in the world as a whole: wars and earthquakes. We will say in America at this moment: hurricanes and floods. Many Christians have been caught up in that devastation. There are PCA ministers and church members who have lost everything they owned. Katrina did not single them out. It was not the persecution of Christians. It killed and destroyed believers and unbelievers alike. Such a hurricane is like the wars and the earthquakes that devastate the world from time to time and deal blows to God’s people along with everyone else. Christians are human beings and share with all other human beings the trouble of living in this benighted world, laboring as it does under God’s curse.
But some of the trouble will be peculiar to Christians. They will be singled out for persecution. People will hate them and seek to do them harm; punish them for their loyalty to Christ and his Word. We do well to remember how many Christians in the world today are suffering precisely this kind of trouble and sorrow.
What is then the great application of this history told beforehand. We read it first in v. 25: Christ preparing us by telling us beforehand what we will face. What is its lesson, its warning, its encouragement? We find it in v. 13: he who stands firm to the end will be saved! That is what the Lord is saying to his disciples from the beginning of this chapter to its end. He who stands firm to the end will be saved! Vv. 25 and 13 are the burden of the Lord’s teaching in Matthew 24. He is telling us the future so that we might stand fast!
The Lord would have had no need to tell his disciples, those with him that day on the Mount of Olives and the generations who have succeeded them – including you and me – he would have had no need to tell us to stand firm if we were not going to be seriously tempted to turn back, to give up following Christ. His was a hard life, beset on every side by troubles and made punishingly difficult by the opposition and the bitter hatred of others. And now he is warning us that the servant is not above his master; if they hated him they will hate us also. He is preparing us for the hard going ahead so that we will not be surprised or undone by it.
Think of the moment at which this teaching was delivered. The Lord saw with crystal clarity the gathering storm that would overwhelm him in a day or two. He felt the animosity of the religious leadership and knew very well that the same bitter hatred was gaining momentum among the crowds. He couldn’t do anything about that. They wanted him to be and to do something else than what his Father had sent him into the world to be and do. They wanted a king to lead them in triumph in battle against the Romans. He came to suffer and die for the sins of his people. They wanted the kingdom of God to come on earth; he came to open the way to heaven for those who trust in him. He was about to suffer the cruelest death precisely because he was about to be caught in the maw of man’s rebellion against God. And feeling these forebodings so clearly he turned to his disciples to be sure they understood what would face them in the world because they were his followers.
Listen to him again as he tells us what must come before the end of the age. One hard and difficult thing after another. And all of these things taken together are, he says in v. 8, but the beginning of sorrows. The end would not come until these signs had repeated themselves again and again. And what is his concern? Why is he painting this dark picture for his disciples? As the following paragraphs will make still clearer, he is preparing his disciples so that they will not be overwhelmed by the troubles that must come. He does not want them to grow spiritually lax or indifferent as time passes nor to be unmanned by the difficulties of being a Christian in a world sold to rebellion against God. Their knowledge that deceivers would come would keep them from being deceived. Their Savior telling them in advance of the troubles that would befall them would keep them from imagining that they had been abandoned or that he was not fulfilling his purposes in their lives.
He will tell them at the end of the Gospel that he will be with them even to the end of the age. That is comfort indeed for a Christian in difficult times, as he lives in a world that gives little credit to his faith, that lives without regard to Christ or his kingdom, and, often, seems to prosper in its unbelief.
But here the comfort, the consolation, the encouragement is of a different kind. Here it is the knowledge that human history as it unfolds is a story with a divine plot. That is why Christians should stand firm in the face of the heavy troubles that must come. The Lord is in control of history. He is in control in the Sudan and is in control in the Gulf Coast. He is in control of war as well as earthquake. He knows what is coming. What is more he has told us what is coming. The war on terror as it has unfolded in recent years is simply more of the same. It is what has, does, and will happen until the Lord Christ comes again. So the Christian knows precisely how history will unfold and he knows, if not precisely when, he knows how it will end. The Christian stands firm because, no matter how difficult things become, he knows, because his Savior told him, these difficulties are precisely what must come to pass before the end and the Lord will not fail to reward him for his courage and his steadfastness when he comes again.
What is perfectly plain to a believing reader of Matthew 24 is that history is not unfolding haphazardly. It is moving on that course ordered for it, drawing inexorably toward its appointed end. The Lord expects us to find great comfort in the fact that the difficulties we face – first as human beings and then as Christians – are all chapters in a book that has already been written, a book, at least for Christians, with an exceedingly happy ending.
Think of all the scenes of devastation that we have witnessed over this past week; the unprecedented destruction of a great American city, miles upon unending miles of rubble, what used to be churches, homes, and businesses, towns and cities. Does it not change everything to know that our Lord Jesus told us to expect such things, terrible things, devastating things? Such things must come? New Orleans and the Gulf Coast are but one instance of what our Savior told us to expect. Such catastrophes, such dislocations, such tragedies are to be the stuff of human history until it is brought to its final end. He told us that precisely so that we would be prepared. And he told us that because it is essential that we know that “he who stands firm to the end will be saved.” There is a great deal of standing firm that will be required of the disciples of Jesus Christ. We know that; we are ready for that; and when it is required of us we remember that our Savior told us that it would be so and assured us that all of this standing firm would eventually be repaid, most wonderfully repaid.
Pascal wrote to a friend who had suffered a tragedy,
“If we regard this event, not as an effect of chance, not as a fatal necessity, but as a result inevitable, just, holy, of a decree of his providence, conceived from all eternity, to be executed in such a year, day, hour, and such a place and manner, we shall adore in humble silence the impenetrable loftiness of His secrets; we shall venerate the sanctity of his decrees; we shall bless the acts of his providence; and uniting our will with that of God himself, we shall wish with him, in him, and for him, the thing that he has willed in us and for us for all eternity.” [Cited in Boettner, Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, 330]
Well that is the idea here. We know that the troubles must come. Until Christ comes again, this world will remain a battleground between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the Evil One. Until Christ comes again, this world will remain the kingdom of the Prince of the air and the scene of continued and vicious rebellion against God on the part of the human race. For whatever reason it must be so. This world stands under the judgment of God. It will never escape the evidence of the power of God’s wrath. God is on his throne and all is unfolding as it must and all leading inexorably to Christ’s triumph at the end.
The Lord’s teaching is obviously meant to make us serious; to make us in deadly earnest about our lives and about human life. As Richard Baxter famously put it,
“Seriousness is the very thing wherein consists our sincerity. If thou art not serious, thou art not a Christian. It is not only a high degree in Christianity, but the very life and essence of it. As fencers on a stage differ from soldiers fighting for their lives, so hypocrites differ from serious Christians.” [Practical Works, pb ed, 46]
Fact is, when Jesus told his disciples about what was to come he did not talk about how happy they would be walking with the Lord – though there would be great happiness to be sure – and he did not talk about all their satisfying work done in his name – though there would be such satisfaction without question; nor did he talk about the fulfillment of a Christian marriage and a Christian home, of living each day with the highest possible ideals and intentions as servants of God and followers of Christ – though he could have said much and did say much about that. When he spoke about what the Christian life would be like throughout this age, until Christ came again, he spoke of difficulty, persecution, temptation, trial, sorrow, and pain. He said that this would be the Christian’s life and experience. He said that Christians must stand fast because there will be much that will threaten and trouble them. The world will not be our playground but our battlefield.
But he also said that we were not to worry; not to allow ourselves to be upset or alarmed by what happens. He told us in advance so that we would know what was coming, but he told us in advance also to assure us that as surely as wars and earthquakes and persecutions would come, so surely would the Lord Jesus appear once more in the heavens, so surely would he send his angels to the four winds, so surely would he gather his people to himself and give them a share in his victory.
Did you see any of the video taken by the young man who rode out the storm in a hotel on the Gulf Coast? He had done this before we were told, through some dozen hurricanes or more, though, he admitted that this was the worst. We saw the waves come crashing against the front doors of the hotel and force them open. We saw the terrible force of the wind uprooting trees and breaking the glass out of the windows. We saw the water filling up the main floor almost to the ceiling.
Every Christian life is like that some of the time. One is overtaken by the wind and the waves. He cannot escape. She cannot drive to high ground or out of the path of the storm. He or she is caught in it, whether it is that which human beings experience altogether – war, earthquake, hurricane and the like – or whether it is the trouble that befalls him or her because and only because he or she is a Christian, and because he or she is hated because of Christ. Life becomes a storm and a believer must say as long ago the psalmists said, “All your waves and breakers have gone over me.”
But, Pascal reminds us, “There is some pleasure in being on board a ship battered by storms when one is certain of not perishing. The persecutions buffeting the church are like this.” Or, with much less Christian insight, as young Winston Churchill wrote home to his mother after he saw action in Cuba, “There is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at without result.”
This young man on the Gulf Coast got the pictures of that terrible storm. He felt the power of the wind. He saw the storm surge fill up that hotel. But he was unharmed. It was for him, you could tell, an exhilarating experience.
You and I do not want to live tame lives. We will not if we think about the shortness of this life and eternity to come; if we think about all our Savior suffered in winning heaven for us; if we think about how much we will want to have served him and suffered for him in this world when our brief lives are over. I guarantee you, brothers and sisters, our Christian brethren in the Gulf Coast, who have suffered and lost so much, will at the end of the day, feel that their lives are more, not less; that theirs has been a more authentic, more important Christian life because of Katrina. They have touched the heart of darkness and felt the power of God and experienced beforehand the end of the world.
We do not want to live tame lives. And Jesus says that if we are faithful to him we will not. We will have to stand fast because of the terrible, the destructive wind in our face and the surge of the storm. But so long as we stand firm to the end, we will prevail, because all of these troubles are just the run-up to the triumphal return of the King of Kings. That will be a day! Keep your eye fixed on it! The prospect will make even the deadliest storms only a reminder of the last, the final, great, day of the Lord. In that prospect even the worst storms are exhilarating too. So when the storm comes, turn in the wind, stand fast, and think of how your heart will fill with joy when the sign of the Son of Man appears in the sky!