It is a major challenge to read, interpret, preach, and teach Matthew 24 and 25. Jesus is clearly speaking of future events, but it’s not entirely clear what order or timeframe is in view. In some ways, Jesus seems to be referring to events that would happen in his disciples’ lifetimes; in other ways, he seems to be looking much further down the road.
These chapters in Matthew aren’t the only passages like this. Throw in a dash of Daniel, a pinch of 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and a heaping helping of Revelation, and you’ve got one spicy interpretive gumbo on your hands! All of these portions of Scripture speak to the topic of “eschatology”: the theological term for the study of last things.
The study of eschatology can be simultaneously fascinating, confusing, alarming, and encouraging. It’s no surprise, then, that countless Christians – dating back generations – have gone to one of two extremes:
One bad extreme is to obsess over eschatology. Many preachers and teachers have gained large followings and sold lots of books by treating the Bible like a puzzle to be solved, and claiming that they – and they alone – have the answers that every other believer has been unable to figure out for 2,000 years (Acts 1:7 is a useful reminder here). They beat the dead horse over and over again, and become one trick ponies, uninterested and unable to study anything but eschatology. Christians like us may be tempted to follow their lead because we want answers too, or perhaps because we’re simply scared.
The other bad extreme is to avoid eschatology completely. As I’ve said before on Sunday mornings at PVCC, many Christians have no problem talking about Jesus’s incarnation around Christmas, and Jesus’s death, resurrection, and (if you’re lucky) ascension around Easter. But we don’t talk much about Jesus’s promised return. Maybe this is because of the inherent uncertainty about the whole affair (remember Acts 1:7). Or maybe this is because we don’t want “modern” people to think we’re weird. But if you lose sight of Jesus’s return, you lose sight of the classic Christian hope of a new heaven and a new earth, where God and man dwell together (Revelation 21:1-4).
So, what’s the healthy middle ground? What are some bedrock, Scriptural, eschatological teachings that we Christians can stand firm in, without falling off the side of the road to unhelpful extremes?
First: yes, we really are living in the “end times”. Jesus has lived, died, risen, and ascended – but he hasn’t returned. Passages like 2 Timothy 3, 1 Peter 4:7, and 1 John 2:18 make this point simple enough: until Jesus comes back, we are – in a very real sense – living in the “last days”. Does that mean you should wear tinfoil on your head, build a bunker, and start canning? If you think so, then knock yourself out. But at the very least, it does mean that all of us “must be ready” (Matthew 24:44).
Second: no, we don’t know when Jesus will return. There is no clearer statement of this fact than Matthew 24:36. If anyone tries to tell you otherwise, don’t believe them; and if you’re really bored, do some research into the long (and sordid) history of Christian leaders who fooled themselves and others into thinking they had it figured out. Could Jesus return today? Yes. Will he? I have no idea – and neither do you!
Third: because we are living in the “end times”, and because we don’t know when Jesus will return, the best thing we can do right now is simply be faithful. Do your best – looking to God’s Word, and relying on the Holy Spirit’s help – to fulfill your Christian calling as a spouse, neighbor, church member, friend, and citizen. As Peter tells us, the uncertain timing of Jesus’s return shouldn’t lull us into complacency; rather, it should motivate us towards “lives of holiness and godliness” (2 Peter 3:11).
Why did I feel the need to write about this right now? I’ll be honest: the developments in Ukraine over the past few days have the potential to get us all thinking about “the end”. And as Jesus tells us in Matthew 24:4-6, “wars and rumors of wars” may cause us to be more easily led astray by people making unfounded and irresponsible claims about the future.
But instead of falling into panic, discouragement, or unhelpful speculations, may we instead focus on being faithful (and by all means, pray for the people of Ukraine – especially your fellow believers there). We are in the end times, and we know that Jesus will return – but we don’t know when. Eschatologically speaking, those are the basics we can say with confidence.
And right now, as we wait for the end – whether it’s tomorrow, next week, or next century – may we press on in doing what we should have already been doing anyway, long before Russian tanks ever started heading south: living lives of holiness and godliness in the time and place God has put us.
If we focus on that, then in the eternal scheme of things, we’ll have nothing to worry about – no matter what comes next.