On Palm Sunday, Jesus rode into Jerusalem to the adulation of the crowds who had packed the city for Passover. As Matthew tells the story, over the next few days, Jesus faced challenge after challenge from those who tried to match wits with him, until they gave up and stopped pestering him with trick questions. Then Jesus went on the offensive, condemning the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy, ending with a tender lament over the coming destruction of Jerusalem (Matt 23:37-39).
As Jesus and the Twelve leave the temple, it’s time for some private tutoring, the last extended lesson in Matthew’s story. Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion are right around the corner. What will he tell them? Will he try to explain again how he’s going to be killed and then raised back to life by the Father? Will he tell them about the good news of salvation and forgiveness of sin? Will he tell them about the gift of the Holy Spirit and the creation of the church?
Not really. From the beginning of his public ministry, the central theme of his preaching has been the kingdom of heaven. The same is still true at the end of his earthly ministry. And the final lesson to his disciples is to reiterate over and over that he will return to finish what he started, on a day that no can know–and that because of this, their job is to stand ready for his return.
The teaching is prompted by a question from the disciples. As they walk out of the Jerusalem temple, the disciples make small talk by admiring the architecture. But Jesus, apparently predicting the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, tells them that “not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down” (Matt 24:2, NIV). Talk about your conversation stoppers.
When they’re outside the city on the Mount of Olives, possibly overlooking the temple, the disciples ask, “when will these things happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (24:3). Jesus proceeds to give them much more of an answer than they probably expected.
“Eschatology.” It’s not a word we hear much in church; it refers to how Christians understand what is to happen in the “end times” (in Greek, the eschaton). Some have expended a tremendous amount of effort trying to decode biblical texts and current events, in order to make a timetable for Jesus’ promised return. Given that Jesus himself says that no one knows the day or hour of his return except God the Father (24:36), I consider that a futile endeavor.
Indeed, Jesus explicitly teaches that our inability to know the time of his return has spiritual consequences: “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come” (24:42, NIV). The verb means to stay awake, alert, watchful, all the time.
As a counterexample, he cites the story of Noah. People went about their daily business, until one day the flood took them by surprise and carried them away (24:39). (And remember, it’s not as if Noah could keep his building project a secret from his neighbors.) That’s how it will be, Jesus says, when the Son of Man returns. People will be caught off-guard in the midst of their routines:
Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. (Matt 24:40-41, NIV)
His words remind me of a passage in Paul:
For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. (1 Thess 4:16-17, NIV)
We are to keep watch, to make ourselves ready for that day. As Matthew’s narrative continues, Jesus will use no fewer than four parables to make the point, which will be addressed in upcoming posts.
For the moment, I already have to ask myself: to what extent do I live with the constant expectation of Christ’s return? My mind is occupied with my to-do list; the horizon of my imagination usually extends as far as the end of this day, the end of this project, or once in a while, the end of my life on earth.
But the end of the age? Not so much.
We can live our own stories without much in the way of an eschatological perspective. But that’s not the story of the kingdom that Jesus tells. What difference would it make today to be watchful for his return?