Signs of the times (Matthew 16:1–4)

It’s easier to predict the weather and to see the climate change.

Just once we find the phrase, signs of the times. As fascinating as it sounds, it’s not a priority in Scripture. In fact, it occurs in a critique:

Matthew 16:1-4 (my translation, compare NIV)
1 Pharisees and Sadducees approached to put him under pressure, asking him to show them a sign from heaven.
2 In reply he said, “At dusk you say, ‘It will be calm, for the heavens are red.’ 3 And in the morning, ‘Today will be stormy, for the heavens are red and threatening.’ You do know how to discern the face of the heavens, but you are unable to discern the signs of the times. 4 An evil and adulterous generation seeks a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” Leaving them behind, he moved away.

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Olivet Discourse: temple and king (Matthew 24)

Whatever your views about end times, here’s a way to hear Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 24 within the temple-versus-kingship conflict that is its context.

Open Matthew 24.

“Signs of the end” is the heading in many versions of Matthew 24, and there are almost as many interpretations as there are interpreters. That’s the irony of eschatology: we tend to divide over something God intends to bring us together in Christ.

So, I’m writing cautiously, not wanting to contribute to the division. I’m not about to fit the Olivet Discourse onto world events of our day. Can we agree together that the starting point for understanding Matthew 24 must be its context in Matthew’s Gospel?

Matthew’s message is that Jesus is the Messiah. The temple leaders didn’t see it that way. The conflict of kingship and temple escalates with Jesus’ final trip to Jerusalem, culminating in his crucifixion and resurrection. As our previous post showed, the temple/kingship conflict forms the framework of Matthew 21–28, including Chapter 24.

Listening from this position, we hear the Olivet Discourse with a clarity any audiophile would love, the counterpoint of temple and kingship.

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Zechariah’s vision of God’s reign (Zechariah 14:4-21)

The Lord will be king over the whole earth (Zechariah 14:9)

A restructure is common when a new leader takes office. Zechariah’s final chapter envisions a restructure of creation as it comes under divine sovereignty. The heart of the chapter is this: The Lord will be king over the whole earth (14:9). And changing the king changes the kingdom.

In an alien world, Star Trek’s Spock would say, “It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it.” Zechariah is not seeing an alien planet; he’s seeing the removal of everything alien to God’s intentions for life on earth, the terraforming of our planet.

With impressionistic brushstrokes, Zechariah paints an image of God’s reign transforming everything:

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Missing the wedding (Matthew 25:1-13)

Lighting the king’s procession.

Jesus continues with three more stories of his coming to kingship. The first is about a wedding where some of the young guests were looking forward to the bridegroom’s arrival, but missed it because they weren’t prepared.

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Serving in God’s house (Matthew 24:45-51)

So, what is the church called to do? A practical answer from the Master of the house.

Okay, so you’re a pragmatic person, and you need to know what practical difference all this stuff about the coming of the son of man makes for how we live our lives now? This post is for you. Jesus answered your question at the end of Matthew 24.

So what does the king want his servants to do now in anticipation of the whole world under his care? Here’s what he does (and does not) want us to do. This is what serving Christ looks like:

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Coming like a thief (Matthew 24:42-47)

Burglars are as unpredictable as they are unwelcome. But a king’s arrival wouldn’t normally be compared to a burglar breaking in to rob the house. What’s going on?

How would you describe Jesus’ role in God’s household? Is he the master of the house, entrusted by the heavenly Father with restoring order to his earthly house? Or is he coming as a thief to take power from those who currently claim to run the world?

A wicked sense of humour probably isn’t the right descriptor for Jesus, but he certainly spun yarns and mixed metaphors in crazy-creative ways. You don’t expect the heaven-anointed king to come like a thief in the dark to rob the householder!

But before you can ask, “Say, what?” he flips the metaphor. Suddenly he’s running the household instead of robbing it:

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One taken; one left (Matthew 24:37-41)

All people should be treated equally. That’s basic ethics. So, is the world unjust if two people doing the same thing are treated differently?

One is taken, and one left. Which is which? Jesus has been speaking about Rome invading, advising the people of Judea to head for the hills (24:16). Is he speaking of soldiers capturing one, and letting the other go?

Or is God doing the taking/releasing? The immediate context says Noah’s flood took them all away (24:39). That didn’t leave many. Is this about God taking some people in judgement, and leaving others? Or is God taking some to save them, leaving the others to be damned?

If you’ve never considered these possible meanings, you may be surprised to know that Bible commentators seriously weigh these options. The commentaries I checked were quite divided over who’s who in this brief story. Jesus didn’t spell it out for us.

That left me wondering if we’re missing the point. We’ve assumed that it must be about the godly being saved and the ungodly being lost, but Jesus’ story doesn’t have those categories. It wasn’t about a bandit and a sheriff. He drew no distinction between them:

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Why we can’t know when (Matthew 24:36)

There’s a good reason our leader couldn’t tell us when everything would finally be under his care. Why didn’t he know?

Matthew 24:36 (my translation, compare NIV)
36 But about the day or hour of that moment, no one has been informed, not the angels of the heavens, not the son, no one except the Father alone.

We don’t have the security clearance to know when the kingdom of God will be fully here. No surprise: crucial plans are often “need-to-know.”

What is surprising is that our Commander-in-chief did not have that information. None of his troops had the envelope either. Why didn’t he know?

It may have to do with how power is transitioned from the existing rulers to God’s appointed ruler.

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Fig trees and seasonal change (Matthew 24:32-35)

The seasonal change is here, if you know where to look.

If you’ve read Matthew 24 as a chart of events in our future (a 7-year tribulation, then Jesus turning up in the sky with trumpets etc), you’ll be shocked to hear Jesus telling his disciples that all these things would happen in their generation.

Here’s what he said:

Matthew 24:32-35 (my translation, compare NIV)
32 Learn by comparing the fig tree. When its branch is already becoming supple and the leaves are sprouting, you know that summer is close. 33 Similarly, when you see all these things, you know it’s close, arriving at the doors. 34 I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass on until all these things come to pass. 35 Heaven and earth will pass on, but my words will not fail to come to pass.

How do you handle that?

Solutions that don’t work

I’ve heard people make some creative if desperate moves to deal with what Jesus said here, solutions that don’t solve the problem:

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Why are the people of earth mourning? (Matthew 24:30-31)

Two pictures combined in one, the reconciliation of heaven and earth.

I thought the gospel was good news. The son of man receiving kingship, backed by angels rather than military forces: isn’t that time for dancing in the streets, celebrating the end of oppression?

Why did Jesus describe the people of earth as mourning? Are they unhappy he’s in charge?

Matthew 24:30-31 (my translation, compare NIV)
30 Then will shine the sign of the son of man in heaven. Then all the tribes of the land will mourn and will see the son of man coming upon the clouds of heaven with power and much grandeur. 31 He will commission his angels with a great trumpet, and they will gather his chosen from the four winds, from one side of the heavens to the other side.

Truth is, we can’t enter a great future without dealing with the pain of the past. Reconciling means facing each other. It starts with facing him: the son of man, the heaven-appointed leader who draws us together in himself.

Jesus composed this word picture by combining two images from Israel’s story. From heaven’s side, authority is taken from the beasts and given to the son of man (Daniel 7). From earth’s side, the people weep as they realize how they’ve treated God (Zechariah 12). Combine the two pictures, and you have the perfect description of Jesus’ ministry: reconciling heaven and earth.

The mourning tribes in Zechariah

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Coming with the clouds (Matthew 24:30)

Armies give power to emperors, but only one ruler has the backing of the clouds of heaven’s hosts.

“You shall not pass!” That might be your worst fear if you’re facing an exam. You’ll hear it very differently if you recognize the image of Gandalf confronting the balrog in Lord of the Rings. In Matthew 24, Jesus tapped into images familiar to those who were living the Jewish story, images we completely misunderstand if we don’t make the connection.

Here’s an example:

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Shaking the powers (Matthew 24:29)

The coming of the son of man is the fall of the superstars from where they had no right to be.

Matthew 24:29–30a (my translation)
29 Immediately after the anguish of those days, ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.’ 30 Then will shine the sign of the son of man in heaven …

If you’re now picturing the space/time universe collapsing into a black hole, please know that Jesus wasn’t the picture in Jesus’ mind. The NIV misleads us to think of literal stars by calling them “heavenly bodies,” whereas Jesus was talking about the powers of the heavens (αἱ δυνάμεις τῶν οὐρανῶν) being shaken.

As the quotation marks suggest, Jesus was using imagery from the Old Testament — Isaiah 13 to be specific.

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The coming of the son of man (Matthew 24:26-27)

If God gives authority to the son of man, “the coming of the son of man” is all about the restoration of God’s reign over the earth.

This might be the crucial phrase in Matthew 24:

Matthew 24 27 For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. (NIV)

The western church has often taken this to mean the end of the age, when the Messiah comes to resurrect his people. Based on that interpretation, graves traditionally face east: that way the dead will rise to face the Messiah when he resurrects them.

Is that what Jesus meant? Or was he talking about his own resurrection, the day the son of man came from the dead to receive the kingship?

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The tribulation and Jesus’ kingship (Matthew 24:9-30)

Good news! Jesus’ kingship resolves the oppressive pain in God’s world. See if Matthew 24 makes more sense as gospel rather than as charts for the end of the world.

I don’t know if you noticed, but our first two posts on Matthew 24 asked you to listen to the conversation Jesus had with his disciples about his kingship a few days before his crucifixion. It’s not always heard as a flowing conversation. Some readers treat it as if Jesus was using jargon to differentiate periods of future history.

Here’s what I mean by treating Jesus’ words as jargon:

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The fall of the Jerusalem temple (Matthew 24:15-28)

After providing pastoral support to his followers, Jesus spoke plainly about the horrors of Jerusalem’s demise and the fall of the temple.

Jesus expected the Jerusalem temple to be destroyed? The temple hierarchy maybe, but the literal temple buildings? The disciples wondered if they’d heard him right.

Matthew went to great lengths to set the scene for this discourse. Arriving in Jerusalem as king, Jesus’ first act was overturning the temple (21:12-13). He called the leaders in God’s house bandits in a den — the phrase Jeremiah used to explain why God abandoned his house, leaving it (and the city) vulnerable to destruction (Jeremiah 7:11). Jesus says the second temple was occupied by murderers who were about to complete what their ancestors started — killing the one God sent them (23:32-36). What hope has a city that won’t heed the warnings of its king? (23:37)

Tragically, the second temple and its city sealed its fate (23:38). The time for warnings is over. Jesus walks away (24:1).

But the disciples can’t leave it at that. They call Jesus back, drawing his attention to the temple buildings (24:2). This is not a picture of country-hick tourists gawking at something they’ve never seen. Like Jesus, they’ve all been there every year for the festivals. Like Korah’s sons, they feel the attachment to this place: How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord Almighty (Psalm 84:1). This house is where their heavenly sovereign said he would dwell among them … to meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites (Exodus 25:8, 22).

Surely Jesus can’t just walk away like that, leaving the city to its fate?

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The end: where are we headed? (Matthew 24:1-14)

What did Jesus say about the end? Here’s the two things we need to know.

Oh, my! There’s so much speculation and dispute over what Jesus meant in Matthew 24. “Signs of the end” is the label it often gets, inviting curiosity about how the world will end.

Jesus did not believe the world would fall apart in the end. He expected that, despite all the conflict and disasters, the world would reach its goal under his leadership — the end it was designed for.

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It doesn’t end with Armageddon

What message do you have for the future of the earth? “Armageddon,” or “I’m a garden”?

The battle of Armageddon frightens people who don’t understand John’s vision. It’s not a picture of a terrifying future. It’s a promise: the kingdom of God overcomes everything the world can throw at it. John sees that the combined force of all the armies in the world cannot bring down the King of Kings or block his reign. Continue reading “It doesn’t end with Armageddon”

What will the post-apocalyptic world be like?

A dark future? The “four horsemen of the Apocalypse” tell a different story.

Does the church have a message of hope for the world?

Netflix has loads of post-apocalyptic movies, portraying a dark future. To be honest, these dystopian disasters seem a bit overblown while I’m sitting back in a comfy chair, connected to the internet, streaming to a big TV. But movies allow us to explore alternative realities, and that experience can help us shape our choices today.

So where will technology take us? When the industrial revolution took off, the mood was unbridled optimism, the expectation that technology could solve all our problems. Today the mood is darker. Post-apocalyptic movies explore the destructive power of war. We build underground bunkers to survive after we’ve nuked earth’s surface. We search for another planet to call home after messing up this one. We imagine a violent world where people kill for what little is left. Perhaps we’ll face extinction if the machines evolve faster than we do. Only the most brutal survive in this post-apocalyptic world.

You know what bothers me most about this dark picture? This is how the church’s message has been heard. The word apocalyptic comes from the Bible. The Apocalypse is the Book of Revelation. People imagined that Revelation was about the end of the world, so post-apocalyptic has come to mean after the end of the world as we know it.

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