March 12, 2012 David Balzer

Matthew 24: Keep watch!

We have friends who are having their baby soon. They don’t know exactly WHEN. But it’s definitely going to happen. They’re EXCITED, and probably a little APPREHENSIVE.

And so they’re GETTING READY. They’ve read the books, had the scans and the tests. They’ve been to the doctor, who’s told them what to expect.

There’d be changes and difficulties and sickness. There were SOME dangers to be aware of, but normally nothing to worry about.

They’d need to be careful about diet and exercise.

Then, as the day got CLOSER, there’d be OTHER things to watch out for. High blood pressure, possible risks to the baby. And then, as for the birth itself. Perhaps it was better not to say too much about THAT just yet. And then, after the BIRTH, well, that’s when the fun would REALLY start.

But, for the moment, their job was to take care, be patient, and be ready because it could come at any time. And not to be shaken by some of the strange things that were going to happen.

That was the basic message from THE DOCTOR. And it’s the same basic advice JESUS gives his disciples. As THEY look into the future. As they have a vague idea about huge events ahead. But they’re not exactly sure WHAT they are. Or WHEN they’re going to happen.

And he says, “Be patient, and be ready because it could come at any time. And don’t be shaken by some of the strange things that are going to happen.”

You can see how the topic comes up. There at the start of Ch 24. Jesus and the disciples have LEFT the temple. It’s been the focus of his attention, probably for a few days, ever since he came riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, back in Ch 21.

The crowd cheered him as A MILITARY AND POLITICAL CONQUEROR. The one to bring down Rome. And bring in God’s kingdom.

But he was bringing in a DIFFERENT kingdom. Won by SACRIFICE on a CROSS, not SLAUGHTER by the SWORD. A kingdom of obedience and righteousness in the lives of INDIVIDUALS. Rather than a kingdom of conquest and taxes and thrones for NATIONS.

And when he comes to THE TEMPLE, he’s found it’s broken beyond repair. And he CLEANS IT UP. Casts out the rubbish.

Rather than being where people can meet with God, it’s leading them AWAY. Turning them OFF. It’s the centre of self-righteousness and legalism. Of hypocrisy and pride. And Jesus pronounces JUDGMENT on it. And on the leaders who rule it. “Woe and destruction,” he says.

And so, we come to Ch 24. Jesus and the disciples have LEFT the temple. They’re on their way back to Bethany. Down the temple steps, and then continuing down the road into the Kidron Valley, then up the other side onto the Mount of Olives. (show photo 1)

The destruction of the temple – AD70

Somewhere along the way, the disciples point out the temple, and how impressive it is. Probably just a passing comment. No real significance in it.

You see, for the average Jew, Herod’s temple was A NATIONAL TREASURE. A source of pride at a time when there was little else to be proud of. But more than the Sydney Opera House, or the MCG. It was the centre of all of Jewish life. Of RELIGIOUS life, but also of social and CULTURAL life.

And it was an IMPRESSIVE building. The whole temple complex had been expanded by Herod to an area of 35 acres. Built on top of a hill. The whole thing was a major engineering feat. It had taken over 30 years to build. Some of the foundation stones weighed over 100 tons and were 15m long by 4m high and 5m deep. (show photo 2)

It was INCONCEIVABLE to a Jew that it could be destroyed. Apart from anything else, wasn’t it GOD’S house? Surely, HE’D look after it. And yet Jesus answers the disciples (v2),

2 “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “I tell you the truth, NOT ONE STONE HERE WILL BE LEFT ON ANOTHER; every one will be thrown down.”

He’s CLEANSED the temple. He’s pronounced WOE and JUDGMENT on its leaders. He’s cursed the fig tree as a sign of God’ s judgment. And now he declares it PLAINLY. The temple will be DESTROYED.

And it all comes to pass 40 years later. AD70. When God raises up Rome to destroy the city of Jerusalem, and the temple with it. And every stone IS cast down – many still there to this day. (show photo 3)

3 questions – the day of the LORD (Joel 2)

And as the disciples stew over that piece of news, they all keep walking. They stop for a rest on the Mount of Olives. At which point, they grab Jesus and ask (v3)

“Tell us,” they said, “WHEN will this happen, and what will be the sign of YOUR COMING and of the END OF THE AGE?”

Notice carefully what they’re asking. Three questions. They recognise Jesus is bringing in THE KINGDOM OF GOD. He’s spent his whole ministry talking about it. He’s God’s chosen Messiah. The KING of the kingdom. He’s marched into Jerusalem, and the crowds lay down palm branches in expectation. And now he’s declaring the temple, the home of his harshest critics, is bound for destruction.

For the disciples, it all points to only ONE THING. THE DAY OF THE LORD. The day the prophets have foretold. When God would break into history. And bring in HIS kingdom. A new age. The reign of his Messiah. Bringing judgment and salvation.

Prophets like JOEL spoke about it. Joel Ch 2.

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy hill. Let all who live in the land tremble, for THE DAY OF THE LORD IS COMING. It is close at hand-   2 a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness. Like dawn spreading across the mountains A LARGE AND MIGHTY ARMY COMES,

A bit further on Joel describes it in exaggerated, poetic language. V10.

10 Before them the earth shakes, the sky trembles, the sun and moon are darkened, and the stars no longer shine. 11 The LORD thunders at the head of his army; his forces are beyond number, and mighty are those who obey his command. The day of the LORD is great; it is dreadful. Who can endure it?

That’s what the disciples are expecting. And so they want to know… WHEN? When will the temple be destroyed? What will be the sign of your ARRIVAL? The coming of your KINGDOM? The beginning of YOUR reign? AND of the end of THIS one?

They’re asking about when this ONE EVENT will happen.

But the disciples are making the same mistake THE CROWDS have made. Confusing the TYPE of kingdom Jesus was bringing in. They may have had SOME idea that it would be other worldly. But they were still focussed on earthly kingdoms being BROUGHT DOWN before Jesus’ kingdom could be BROUGHT IN.

When THE REALITY is something DIFFERENT. Something WE can see as we look back. The reality is that God’s kingdom begins – Jesus COMES to REIGN – WHILE EARTHLY KINGDOMS CONTINUE.

Jesus comes to reign in the HEAVENLY throne room. When he defeats sin and death. When he’s declared Lord and Christ and Judge when God raises him from death, and seats him at his right hand. That’s when he COMES. Comes to reign as KING.

And that reign BEGINS in the lives and hearts of those who SERVE him.

BUT. But earthly kingdoms CONTINUE. (People STILL follow OTHER voices, and bow before other crowns… FOR THE MOMENT.) Jesus reigns as king. Just that lots of people don’t RECOGNISE that yet.

God’s kingdom – Jesus’ reign – is both NOW. And NOT YET. There’s A TENSION we live with. It’s BEGUN, but it hasn’t been CONSUMMATED, or COMPLETED yet.

And I think the DISCIPLE’S confusion is part of the reason there’s confusion for US, TOO. As we think about exactly what Jesus is talking about in this chapter. Is he talking ONLY about the destruction of the temple? (In THE PAST?) Or is he talking about the end of the world? (Jesus’ coming BACK). In the FUTURE?

Or is it BOTH? And if it’s BOTH, which bits describe WHICH EVENT?

But the key, I think, is to keep in mind what the DISCIPLES were expecting. They ask THREE QUESTIONS: “When will the temple be destroyed? What will be the sign of your COMING? And, what will be the sign of the END OF THE AGE?” They expect it all to happen AT ONCE. ONE EVENT.

But as Jesus tries to explain to them what’s coming. As he tries to get across the idea that his kingdom will come in a way that’s NOW and NOT YET. One of the ideas he uses is that of PREGNANCY and BIRTH. Have a look at it there in v8. Terrible times ahead.

8 All these are the BEGINNING of birth pains.

In other words, the process has BEGUN. (The process of Jesus coming to rule.) It’s like a baby being born. When labour BEGINS, the baby has certainly begun to MAKE ITS PRESENCE FELT. But, on the other hand, it hasn’t fully arrived yet.

And there’s a lot of pain and difficulty to go through FIRST.

And when it DOES arrive, it will be a WHOLE DIFFERENT REALITY. ESPECIALLY for the baby. It was ALIVE before. But NOW, being ALIVE is COMPLETELY DIFFERENT. It’s MORE alive. More true and real. Without the limitations of BEFORE.

And that’s what Jesus says the future will be like for the disciples. The IMMEDIATE future is just the BEGINNING of the birth pains. The kingdom is ON THE WAY. The Son of Man comes to reign as king. And judgment FALLS on the temple and Jerusalem. But the BIRTH is still some way off.

And it’s STILL some way off FOR US.

And so Jesus has some advice for them. Just like J. and B’s doctor had for THEM. About how to live IN BETWEEN the times.

Exciting, scary, difficult times ahead. But, for the moment, their job was to take care, be patient, and be ready. And not to be shaken.

Don’t be deceived. Birth pains are not birth

FIRST piece of advice from Jesus. There in v4. DON’T BE DECEIVED. Don’t fall for an imposter. Birth pains are not birth.

That’s the PROBLEM with the birth of God’s kingdom taking a long time. (With it having BEGUN, but not having been COMPLETED.) You’ll think it’s arriving when it hasn’t REALLY.

I don’t know whether any of you mums ever had Braxton Hicks contractions in the weeks leading up to the birth? False contractions? Perhaps they were even quite strong. And you thought the birth had arrived.

So, you quickly throw your bags in the car. And arrive at the hospital. The midwife examines you, smiles knowingly, and then sends you home, “You’re not in labour yet. Go home. You’ll know when it begins. It’ll be DIFFERENT.”

And that’s what Jesus says (v4). “Tough days ahead. Wars, famines, earthquakes. But they’re only THE BEGINNING.

And plenty who’ll try to DECEIVE you into thinking it’s THE END. Who’ll say, “I’m the Christ. I’ve ARRIVED.”

But Jesus says, don’t be deceived. When I come, there’ll be NO MISTAKING it. Jump down to v23.

23 At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, HERE is the Christ!’ or, ‘THERE he is!’ don’t believe it. 24 For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect-if that were possible. 25 See, I’ve told you ahead of time. 26 “So if anyone tells you, ‘There he is, out in the desert,’ do not go out; or, ‘Here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. 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.

And over the next 40 years, Jewish revolutionaries WOULD rise up. They’d attract people out into the desert. Or they’d hold secret meetings in the towns. But it won’t be like that when Jesus DOES come. When he finally DOES come, you’ll KNOW IT.

And then he says that where there’s A CARCASS, there the vultures will gather. I think he’s talking about THE TEMPLE. It’s an empty shell. No life left in it. So, it’s not surprising that the vultures will gather to finish it off. That ROME will arrive, and destroy it as part of God’s judgment. PART of the birth pains of Jesus’ coming. But it’s not the end of the age. At least not completely. So don’t be DECEIVED.

Stand firm, because persecution is sure

But that doesn’t mean GIVE UP, because it hasn’t come YET. It doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be CONCERNED about. The SECOND thing Jesus says is to STAND FIRM, because persecution is SURE. (From v9) “You’ll be persecuted, put to death and hated,” says Jesus, “because of me. People will give up the faith. Wickedness will increase, love will grow cold.”

But then he says (v13)

13 but he who STANDS FIRM to the end will be SAVED.

There’s no sugar-coating by Jesus. Things WILL get worse before they get better. And they did for the Jews under Rome.

But he gives the rock solid promise of God’s purposes. Those who stand firm, who keep trusting God, WILL BE SAVED. Will be brought by God to THE FULLNESS of his kingdom.

But the end won’t come QUICKLY. You need to take a LONG TERM VIEW. Because God’s plans are bigger than the temple. Bigger than Jerusalem. And even Israel.

God’s purposes are that THAT MESSAGE of SALVATION has to spread through the world by means of those faithful people. The ones who stand firm are the king’s HERALDS who’ll take the victory declaration THROUGH THE WORLD. V14

14 And this gospel of the KINGDOM will be preached IN THE WHOLE WORLD as a testimony to ALL NATIONS, and THEN the end will come.

THAT’S why the delay. Why the kingdom is NOW, AND not YET. Because the NEWS of the kingdom’s arrival has to go out to the whole world. And it’s only when THAT’S happened that the end will come.

And the news going out is what happened with the disciples and the generations that followed them. Even AFTER the temple was destroyed. And it’s STILL happening. We’re part of it, as WE stand firm. And as we tell OTHERS about that message.

And we NEED to stand firm in the face of persecution, and we need to have PERSEVERENCE, because the BIRTH is going to TAKE SOME TIME.

And THAT’S the perspective Jesus wants the disciples to have when it comes to THE PRESENT CRISIS. The events to do with the temple. Which is what he turns to SPECIFICALLY in v15.

And he quotes from Daniel Ch 9 about something abominable being set up in the holy place in the temple. For Daniel, he was predicting the GREEK ruler, Antiochus Epiphenes, who in 168BC set up a pagan altar to Zeus. And Jesus is saying, “Something like THAT is going to happen again.”

And then Matthew adds his own little comment (v15), “LET THE READER UNDERSTAND.” Which I take to mean something like, “Go back and read the WHOLE book of Daniel. And bring ALL of that with you as you think about the events to come. Like Ch 2. A dream about a giant statue made up of 4 earthly kingdoms. God sets up the kingdoms, one after the other. But then a hand from God smashes them all down. And brings in his ULTIMATE kingdom that will NEVER be destroyed.

Or Ch 7. A vision about one like the Son of Man who COMES on the CLOUDS. V13.

13 “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like A SON OF MAN, COMING WITH THE CLOUDS OF HEAVEN. He approached the Ancient of Days (that’s GOD) and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

He’s COMING – not to earth – but into God’s throne room. Coming to be CROWNED.

Jesus himself quotes from that Daniel 7 passage. Down in v30 of Matthew 24.

30 “At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in HEAVEN (NIV has “the sky”), and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of HEAVEN, with power and great glory.

And that’s the background we’re meant to think about as we look at the events Jesus describes. (Jesus being crowned as king. And being given authority over all nations.) It happened after his death and resurrection. When he returned to heaven. That’s when Jesus CAME. When God’s kingdom BEGAN.

And, in a sense, it happened when God’s judgment fell on Jerusalem. Jesus CAME to rule in JUDGMENT. His authority over the nations, especially Israel, was DISPLAYED. That’s what the disciples were connecting his kingdom with.

But it will ALSO happen FINALLY, when he returns. When he brings judgment on ALL nations. And brings in his kingdom COMPLETELY.)

The events to do with Jerusalem being attacked will be TERRIBLE, says Jesus. If you’re in Judea, says Jesus, get out of there to the mountains (v16). Don’t beat around the bush – get out of there. And pray it doesn’t happen in winter, or on the Sabbath, when travelling will be difficult (v20). And when it DOES happen, it will be like a carcass being stripped by vultures (v28).

Terrible times, but don’t be fooled. THAT’s not the end. The kingdom hasn’t come finally. Labour’s still going.

And, then down to v29, he quotes from Joel 2. About the day of the LORD. About the coming of God’s kingdom.

29 “Immediately after the distress of those days “‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ 

It SOUNDS like the end of the world, but, in Joel, it’s just METAPHOR. Nations and cities and kingdoms are brought down. Because God’s judgment has fallen. Fallen on Jerusalem. God reigns by means of his agent. His Messiah. The Son of Man is coming in judgment. Jesus continues

30 “At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in HEAVEN, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of HEAVEN, with power and great glory.

In other words, they’ll see the words of Jesus’ judgment against Jerusalem COMING TO PASS. He is exerting his rule over all nations.

Jesus doesn’t know exactly WHEN it’s going to happen. But like a fig tree that starts to sprout new leaves. You can tell from the signs when it’s about to happen. But it will BE SOON. V34.

It’s near, right at the door. 34 I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.

And Jesus’ prediction came to pass. The present generation still alive. A mere 40 years later, AD70, Rome would lay siege to the city. Tired of Jewish revolutionaries making a nuisance of themselves. They let Passover pilgrims enter, swelling the city to bursting capacity. And then they refused to let them leave.

The result was starvation and terrible atrocities inside. They’d finally break down the city walls, destroying by fire much of the city, and the temple too. After that, the soldiers pulled down all the stonework to the ground.

The Jewish historian, Josephus, says, “It was so thoroughly laid even with the ground … that there was left nothing to make those that came thither believe it had ever been inhabited. This was the end which Jerusalem came to by the madness of those that were for innovations; a city otherwise of great magnificence, and of mighty fame among all mankind.”

It was a TERRIBLE time. Josephus claimed 1.1 million people were killed during the siege and invasion, the majority Jewish. A further 97 thousand were captured and enslaved.

Keep watch – Jesus is coming

Terrible times ahead, says Jesus. But (1) don’t be deceived. It’s not the end. (2) Stand firm to the end. And finally he says, KEEP WATCH, because the Son of Man IS COMING.

And when he comes, he’ll SET THING RIGHT.

You don’t know WHEN. And it probably won’t be QUICKLY, and it WILL be HARD. So you’ll need to PERSEVERE. But KEEP WATCH. V42.

42 “Therefore KEEP WATCH, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.

And he goes on to explain what it MEANS to keep watch. (v45) It means being a faithful servant whose Master has put him in charge of the household while he’s away. It means giving the servants of the household their food at the proper time. Looking after those who belong to the kingdom of the Master.

That was the task of the Apostles after Jesus ascended. Feeding God’s people. Teaching, discipling, evangelising, shepherding.

And it’s OUR job TOO. As we wait for Jesus to come FINALLY. To bring in his kingdom COMPLETELY. Our job is to KEEP WATCH, not by checking the signs and trying to unravel the date from complicated prophecies. JESUS didn’t even know, so how could WE.

But we keep watch simply by GETTING ON WITH THE MASTER’S BUSINESS. Making HIS priorities OUR priorities. Feeding the sheep. Carrying his message to the world. Gathering his elect from the four winds.

And we may not know WHAT or WHEN. We may not have the answers. But God DOES. We can face tomorrow, TRUSTING that Jesus DOES rule. And be COMFORTED by that.

He IS king. He WILL bring reward and retribution.

Stand firm. Keep watch. Be about the master’s business. Until he COMES FINALLY.

“When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation,
And take me home; what joy shall fill my heart!
Then I shall bow in humble adoration
And there proclaim, my God, how great Thou art!”

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