It seems like the world is falling apart. Earthquakes, tsunamis, wars in every corner of the world, uprisings each way we look, financial markets in trouble, nuclear threats, violence in our streets, and that’s just the first page of the newspaper. “Pastor, the world is falling apart. Do all these disasters mean that Jesus is coming back?”
I’ll prove it. (We’re headed for Matthew 24.)
The last public teaching of our Lord Jesus was in the temple in Jerusalem. It is Tuesday of holy week. Jesus refutes the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 22), preaches a sermon exposing their hypocrisy (Matthew 23), and then leaves the temple and heads back to Bethany. On the way out of the temple complex the disciples point out how marvelous the stone work was, and Jesus gives a rather stunning answer.
Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” (Matthew 24:1-2)
That this threw the disciples for a bit of a loop is proven by what happens next. They travel down through the Kidron Valley, up past the Garden of Gethsemane, and then they stop for a break at the Mount of Olives. From this place they can look back to the west and see the temple and the city of Jerusalem lying before them. The disciples then come to Jesus and ask two questions.
As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” (Matthew 24:3)
What follows in Matthew 24 and 25 is called the escatological discourse, our Lord’s teaching about the destruction of Jerusalem, His second coming, and the end of the age. (Eschatology means the teach of the end times.)
As an aside: the key to understanding this text, Matthew 24, is to see that the disciples are asking two distinct questions: (1) when will the temple be destroyed? and (2) when will you return in glory? These are two unique events. The destruction of the temple has occurred already, August 10, 70 AD. The return of our Lord has not. And yet, in Matthew 24, Jesus answers both questions together.
But, to the question of wars and earthquakes and nuclear plant melt-downs, we notice that Jesus begins His teaching with a list of things that are not signs.
And Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. (Matthew 24:4-6)
Did you get that? “The end is not yet!” “These things are going to happen,” says Jesus, “There will be wars all over the place, violence, false teaching, this is how things go. They are not signs of the end.”
And Jesus continues, adding natural disasters to the list of “not signs”:
For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains. (Matthew 24:7-8)
Notice again how Jesus says it: these natural disasters are the “beginning” of the birth pains, not the end. If we were to take all the newspaper clippings to Jesus, the Japanese disaster, the war in Libya, the uprisings in Egypt, and ask if they are signs of the second coming, His answer, as we have it here in Matthew 24, is “no.” These are not signs. The end is not yet. These things are normal. Disasters, yes, but normal disasters.
And here’s the point, Jesus may return at any moment. He is not waiting for a certain number of wars or earthquakes before He returns. He is certainly not waiting for some European dictator to put bar codes on people’s foreheads and sacrifice a pig in the rebuilt temple. Jesus is not waiting for anything except our salvation (2 Peter 3:9). The constant teaching of our Lord Jesus is that we won’t know when He is coming, it will be a surprise, a shock, totally unexpected. No one knows the day of the hour (see Matthew 24:42, 44, 25:13).
The Lord’s Christians live in constant expectation of His coming, knowing that each day is a day closer. This is a source of great joy, because it is our redemption that draws near (Luke 21:28). His return for us will be a surprise, but not the surprise of disaster, but the surprise of salvation.
But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. (1 Thessalonians 5:4-5)
In the midst of disaster, poverty and violence, and even in the midst of earthly peace, plenty and tranquility, this is our great hope. The newspaper will always have disasters, but the Scriptures have this comfort: Jesus will come again for us, that where He is we will be also (John 14:3). Amen.
Oculi Monday, 2011