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Matthew 24 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Not Yet the End

Many modern readers have felt uncomfortable with the picture of Jesus as an end-time prophet. Nevertheless, even if one starts with historical skepticism, Jesus clearly taught on the end time. Much of Jesus' final discourse in Matthew comes from Mark and Q, but even where Matthew adds elements (such as the trumpet in 24:31), we often have other evidence that Jesus spoke these words. Our earliest extant Christian document, 1 Thessalonians, alludes to some of the same words of Jesus ("according to the Lord's own word," 1 Thess 4:15): clouds, gathering of the elect, angel(s), lawlessness, apostasy, defilement of God's temple, the parousia, coming as a thief, sudden destruction on the wicked, and so on (4:13--5:11; compare 2 Thess 2:1-12; Waterman 1975; D. Wenham 1984). Some of Jesus' other words, for instance about unknown times and seasons (Acts 1:7), also appear there. But this common ground not only helps us defend the reliability of the Gospels; it also reminds us that Paul, unlike some Bible teachers today, saw no difference between Jesus' coming for the saints and his coming at the end of the age to judge the world.

Modern prophecy teachers have traditionally looked to current events for signs of the end, to stir end-time enthusiasm among Christians. While the goal may be worthy, the methodology runs counter to Jesus' own teaching. After listing many of the signs (usually hardships) that characterized the end among contemporary Jewish thinkers and visionaries, Jesus declares that the end is still to come (v. 6; compare Rev 6:1-8). Jewish people called such events the "birth-pangs of the Messiah" (Morris 1972:23), but Jesus declares that these are merely the beginning of birth pains (Mt 24:8). Besides missing Jesus' point, modern prophecy teachers are also almost always wrong; for one survey of missed prophecies--often reinterpreting the same biblical texts differently from decade to decade, as headlines change--see Wilson 1977.

While catastrophic events do not allow us to predict how soon the Lord is coming--such events have happened throughout history (Ladd 1956:72 n. 1; pace Frost 1924:18-19)--they do remind us that such problems characterize this age, summoning us to long for our Lord's coming all the more fervently. Jesus warns us what kind of sufferings we must face. His teaching presupposes important knowledge about the end time, but its repeated exhortations show that its emphasis is on how to live in light of that reality (see Lane 1974:446; Hill 1979:63). Thus it makes good sermon material if we catch Jesus' point!Christians Must Be Ready for False Messiahs (24:4-5) The danger of being misled is mentioned frequently (vv. 4, 11, 24), and Matthew elsewhere has cause to report Jesus' warnings against signs-working prophets (7:15, 22; on signs prophets, see the introduction), a warning that is clearly part of the Jesus tradition (2 Thess 2:9). Today we might think of Jim Jones, David Koresh and New Age Christ figures (see Groothuis 1990). The death toll under Jones and Koresh, incidentally, serves as a helpful rebuttal to those who claim that all religions are the same and it matters not what one believes. But false messianic figures abounded in the first century as well (for example, Jos. War 2.259-63; 6.285-88; Ant. 20.97-98).Be Ready for Both Human and Natural Disasters (24:6-8) Jesus borrows traditional biblical language here (compare 2 Chron 15:6; Is 19:2; Jer 51:46; for rumors of wars, compare Dan 11:44). Most of the events of Matthew 24:5-14 occurred between A.D. 30 and 70 (Blomberg 1992:356, following W. G. Thompson 1974). Some even believe the gospel of the kingdom was proclaimed among the nations in a representative sense (Rom 10:18; Col 1:6; Blomberg 1992:356-57). The general character of the language prohibits us from limiting it to any such events, however (Beasley-Murray 1957:35, 39). Such events occurred throughout the period of 30-70 and have been occurring ever since.Be Ready for Persecution; Some Professing Christians Will Fall Away (24:9-13) So heart wrenching is this reality that the New Testament writers had to warn Christians about it repeatedly (2 Thess 2:3; 1 Tim 4:1-3; 2 Tim 3:1-9; 2 Pet 3:3; 1 Jn 2:18-19; Rev 13:12-17). Early Christian exhortation regularly portrayed perseverance and apostasy as the alternatives in times of serious testing (S. Brown 1969:146). Like Mark, Matthew connects the suffering of believers with that of Christ, even prefacing his passion narrative with the promise of believers' suffering (compare Feuillet 1980b; Graham 1986).

Wickedness, or more literally and specifically "lawlessness," could characterize especially the outwardly religious (Mt 23:28; compare Jude 4) but probably applies to the society as a whole, including wicked rulers (2 Thess 2:3, 7-8). Nevertheless, as a consequence even the hearts of most (literally, "the many," perhaps denoting disciples--compare Mt 20:28) will become loveless (compare 22:37-39), hence capable of betrayal. Although the promise that one who stands firm to the end will be saved (24:13; compare v. 22) could refer to survival (as in 4 Ezra 6:25), the context of apostasy suggests that enduring to salvation here may refer to the same demand that phrase implies in most New Testament passages: that only those who continue in the faith will receive salvation at the final day (compare 7:13-14; Marshall 1974:73).True Christians Will Spread the Gospel Among All Nations (24:14) Whereas Jesus says that other phenomena do not mark the end (v. 6), here he explicitly declares that the spread of the gospel does mark the end. The world controls many other factors, but this is the one factor the church itself determines: we must complete the commission of discipling all nations before this age will come to a close (28:19-20; compare Acts 1:6-11; Rom 11:25-26; 2 Pet 3:9-15). This prerequisite for the end does not imply that all peoples will be converted, but that the kingdom will not come in its fullness until all peoples have had the opportunity to embrace or reject the King who will be their judge (Mt 25:31-32). Jesus' early followers recognized that he would rule a remnant with representatives from all peoples (Rev 5:9; 7:9), just as the world system would (Rev 13:7).

Perhaps just as Israel, because of disobedience, ruled the land promised to Abraham only twice in its history (Gen 15:18; 1 Kings 4:21; 2 Chron 34:5-7), so the Lord's return has been delayed and the world's suffering prolonged by the church's disobedience to the Great Commission (see 2 Pet 3:9-15; Ford 1979:76). While some generations have come much closer than others, the Lord will not return until he has found a generation of servants devoted enough to fulfill the worldwide missions task he has commanded.

Whereas Matthew 28:18-20 is a commission, 24:14 is also a promise that some generation will succeed in finishing the task others have begun. African, Asian and Latin American Christians are in the forefront of world evangelism today; Christ's followers among many peoples must labor together for the harvest. But this mission cannot be done in human strength. The first generation of the church experienced the most rapid exponential growth while lacking all the resources Western Christians think necessary to accomplish the task today, such as money, literature, mass transportation and communication. But they had what much of the Western church today lacks: a faithful dependence on the Holy Spirit (compare 10:20; Mk 13:11; Acts 1:8). With a world population five times what it was a mere century and a half ago, the stakes have never been as high as they are now. Let us pray for laborers for the Lord's harvest (Mt 9:38), that we may become that promised generation.

We should note the context in which this worldwide evangelism occurs: suffering (24:9-13; more explicitly in Mk 13:9-11, earlier applied by Matthew to his fuller discourse on evangelism). Many early Christians recognized suffering as a prerequisite for the end (Col 1:24; Rev 6:10-11; compare 4 Ezra 4:3-37), because Christians' suffering is inseparable from our witness. It is when we are least comfortable with the world that we most dramatically proclaim the kingdom of our Lord. Further, just as most mission fields in history were opened through the blood of martyrs, many peoples will not be reached today without Christians who are prepared to lay down their lives for the gospel Jesus has called us to proclaim.

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