by David Groendyk
I think it’s fair to say that Matthew 24 is a confusing chapter. Jesus is weaving together in one sermon different facets of what the world will look like as his second coming draws nearer. Many scholars, theologians, and pastors have spent lots of energy and spilled lots of ink debating some of the difficulties of this chapter. I’ll do my best to give you all some clarity in this devotional, but not just for the sake of making theological arguments. How we understand this chapter theologically actually has a huge impact on us practically and pastorally.
Jesus is simultaneously talking about three different time periods in this one chapter: 1) the year 70 AD when the temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed by the Romans, 2) Jesus’s own second coming, and 3) the general time period between those two events. Here’s how we could break down this chapter (you can see how it might cause some confusion!):
• Verses 1–3 = 70 AD destruction of temple
• Verses 4–14 = the whole time between Jesus’s two comings
• Verses 15–22 = 70 AD destruction of temple
• Verses 23–28 = the whole time between Jesus’s two comings
• Verses 29–31 = Jesus’s second coming
• Verses 32–35 = the whole time between Jesus’s two comings
• Verses 36–41 = Jesus’s second coming
• Verses 42–51 = the whole time between Jesus’s two comings
Being clear about these divisions helps us understand what to expect in this life as believers, and it helps us know how we ought to live in light of those expectations. Here are some applications for us:
1. We ought to be prepared for persecution and suffering being the norm for the church. The norm is that we will be tempted to fall away (v. 24), lawlessness will increase (v. 12), we will be hated for our religion (v. 10), and believers will be put to death for their faith (v. 9). We must be prepared accordingly. Now, living in America where we have freedom of religion and a history that is generally tolerant of Christianity is a tremendous blessing, and we shouldn’t take it for granted. But the recent ban on public gatherings due to COVID-19 gives us an opportunity to think about what it might look like if our churches weren’t allowed to meet together in public due to persecution. Would your faith survive if our government banned Christianity? Would you still be a Christian if you weren’t allowed to go to church? I don’t mean to downplay the importance of Sunday worship; I mean to say that there are people in America (and all over the world) that are only Christians because they don’t face persecution. Jesus himself warned in Matthew 13:20–21 that many Christians are still Christians only because they haven’t yet faced persecution. The COVID-19 pandemic will certainly test some of us—do you call yourself a Christian merely because you go to church on Sundays? Let’s join together in prayer that the gospel will truly and deeply take root in each one of our hearts.
2. Jesus’s second coming will be a surprise; therefore, don’t look for signs or try to predict when he will come. There can be a temptation when we read verses 6–7 to think that when a pandemic like COVID-19 hits the globe or when rumors of World War III swirl about (remember when those rumors swirled just a few months ago?), that Jesus must be awfully close to coming back. Jesus is clear that even while he was on earth he didn’t know when he would come back (v. 36)! We play a dangerous and fruitless game when we think we know when Jesus is coming.
3. Jesus’s second coming will be a surprise; therefore, stay awake (v. 42). This is the main application Jesus gives. We may not be able to predict when Jesus will come, but we are to live as though he could come back any minute. “Stay awake” is the same Greek word as when Jesus tells his disciples to “watch” in the garden of Gethsemane (Matt. 26:38). Do you want to see a bad example of staying awake? Look at how the disciples fall asleep. Don’t fall asleep spiritually. In other words, don’t be surprised at the fiery trials, don’t get lulled to sleep by the riches and pleasures of this earth and forget about Christ, don’t stop making God’s glory your number one priority in life, keep actively exercising your faith, keep persevering and enduring (v. 13), keep proclaiming and living the gospel (v. 14), and steward your resources in a way that honors God and proclaims his good news (vv. 45–51). Strive to stay awake and to live like this all the time, and let’s pray for the Spirit’s help as we do so.