Forum Class for December 19, 2004
Notes from Ray Stedman
The Secret Presence: Matthew 24:23-38
Do you know the first question ever asked in the New Testament? It was asked by Wise Men who came out of the East to Jerusalem, saying, "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?" A little later Herod the king asked the same question of the scribes, "Where (is the Christ) to be born?" They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea." Thus the New Testament opens with a search for Christ, "Where is he?"
As Jesus stands on the Mount of Olives with his disciples and previews for them the remarkable period to come which he calls, "the close of the age," he indicates that during that time men will still be asking, "Where is the Christ?" But then, he says, it will be a trick question; be careful of it! In Matthew 24:23-28, he says:
"Then if any one says to you, 'Lo, here is the Christ!' or 'There he is,' do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will arise and show great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. Lo, I have told you beforehand. So, if they say to you, 'Lo, he is in the wilderness,' do not go out; if they say, 'Lo, he is in the inner rooms,' do not believe it. For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of man. Wherever the body is, there the eagles will be gathered together."
Do not miss the time word with which Jesus opens this section, "Then if any one says to you," etc. "Then" clearly refers to the time of the Great Tribulation which he has briefly but terribly described with the words, "if those days had not been shortened, no human being would be saved." As we have seen, this is the last three and one-half years of Daniel's predicted seventieth week. During this terrible time of persecution and judgment the Lord Jesus will support and sustain his own by appearing to them frequently in a variety of places. These appearances will certainly be made to the 144,000 in their world wide ministry, and perhaps also to that "great multitude" of Gentile believers who will come out of the Great Tribulation.
As a result of this rather unusual state of affairs rumors will apparently spread like wildfire that Jesus Christ is somewhere around. In John 7:11, 32-36 Jesus himself predicted that a situation like this that would occur during the forty day period after his resurrection:
"The Jews were looking for him at the feast, and saying, "Where is he?" [There's the question again! A little further on John says:] The Pharisees heard the crowd thus muttering about him, and the chief priests and Pharisees sent officers to arrest him. Jesus then said, 'I shall be with you a little longer, and then I go to him who sent me; you will seek me and you will not find me; where I am you cannot come.' The Jews said to one another, 'Where does this man intend to go that we shall not find him? Does he intend to go to the Dispersion among the Greeks and teach the Greeks? What does he mean by saying, "You will seek me and you will not find me," and, "where I am you cannot come"?'"
To these Jews Jesus was nothing but a tub-thumping, rabble-rousing, troublemaker from Nazareth and they intended to put him to death as quickly as possible. Jesus knew this and knew that they would succeed in their plans. But now he puzzled them completely by telling them that after they had done their worst, they would look for him but would not be able to find him. That could have only been true during his forty-day post-resurrection ministry. After he ascended into the heavens they did not look for him, for the disciples were then declaring throughout Jerusalem that he had gone to the Father. But during that forty-day period there must have been many disquieting rumors, which came to the authorities' ears, that Christ was still somewhere around.
When the soldiers came from the grave of Jesus with the report that he had risen from the dead, they had to be bribed to say that his disciples had come and stolen his body away, and thus to quiet that rumor. But soon other rumors were buzzing. Mysterious appearings of Jesus to his disciples were reported and the authorities must have sent other search parties to try to locate him. But as Jesus had predicted, they searched for him but they could not find him. They could never understand the reason, but it was exactly as he had said, "Where I am going you cannot come." In the new relationship to his own into which he had entered, it was impossible for them to intrude.
During that forty-day period the disciples of Jesus were what we might call "Pre-church Christians." They believed in Jesus but they were not yet members of the church, for the church was not formed until the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was poured out. During the close of the age, the disciples (or as Jesus calls them "the elect") will be what we might call "Post-church Christians." The church has been removed from the world, at least from any visible participation in world affairs. Since we know that Christians will be given glorified bodies like their Lord's (and Paul says that, once removed from this life, the church will be forever "with the Lord"), it seems highly likely that church Christians will join the Lord Jesus in this ministry behind the scenes during the tribulation. They will be like Moses and Elijah who appeared with the transfigured Christ on the Mount. The picture then is clear. Jesus will come for his church and take the members into a new relationship with him. Then he, with them, will remain throughout the "end of the age" period, appearing only to those whose hearts are ready to believe in him. Rumors of his presence will continually be spread abroad, so that men will be saying in that day as they said during the forty-day period, "Where is he?" Authorities will search for him and will not be able to find him, but false prophets will claim to know where he is.
Masters of Deceit: Part of the tribulation of the end times will be a fresh and powerful campaign of deceit which will break out against any who are tempted to believe in Jesus. Just as the Lord foresaw and described the great forces of deceit which would be at work until the close of the age arrived, so he also described the Great Tribulation. Their first element will be the presence of authoritative personalities. "False Christs and false prophets will arise" (Matthew 24:24). No program of falsehood among men ever existed without a masterful or powerful leader. The human heart inveterately loves a good showman. Men tend easily to follow those who speak with authority and who manifest drive and dash in his personalities. And there is no road to error quite so compelling as a religious one. History confirms the idea that more people are misled religiously than any other way. Let a blatant atheist utter an attack against Christianity and no one is greatly disturbed or changed. But let a bishop of the church, dressed in religious garb and using pious language say the same thing and immediately it is discussed and openly or secretly admired all over the world.
So false Christs shall arise, taking full advantage of the superstitious expectancy of the times, for as Jesus said in another place, "Men [will be] fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming in the world." They will come with a display of signs and wonders, misleading many, and playing ultimately into the hand of the Lawless One.
Not only will there be false Christs, but also false prophets. We have already seen that this can have a secular sense; the pace-setters of thought, the philosophers, philosophers, professors, scientists; clever men of great intelligence who are listened to when they talk. While the church is yet on earth it acts as salt, pervading every section of life, and there are men of true faith found among the prophets of the world everywhere today. But in that day there will no longer be room for the gospel of the supernatural; there will be no place among intellectuals for what Paul calls a "secret and hidden wisdom of God." which none of the princes of this world knew, for had they known it, they would never "have crucified the Lord of Glory" (1 Corinthians 2:7, 8).
Since there will no longer be a place among the leaders of the world for those who live by faith, there will arise men of tremendous intellectual capacity and ability who will become the instruments of error-false prophets-who will convince millions that the lie of the Antichrist is the only reasonable basis for life.
Augmenting the pull of masterful personalities in the last days, will be the power of persuasive propaganda. As we have already noted, powerful rumors of the mysterious presence of Jesus Christ will sweep the nations. There will be many who will claim to have authoritative information to where he may be found. They will offer themselves as privileged companion of Christ, claiming that they alone may be trusted to lead the seeker to him.
Lest this seem unbelievable, let me share a personal experience which occurred a few years ago. I was invited to meet a certain Bible teacher in a private home. He told me without much preamble, "Christ has already returned to earth and I happen to belong to a group of people who know where he is. If you are really interested in preaching the truth, I can tell you how to get in on the inner secrets." I was not deeply impressed, and said to him, "Where is he, then, since you know?" "Oh, he is in a special place in the desert, here in California," he answered. "I have seen him many times and others that I know have seen him. Only we know where he is."
To learn what he would say, I turned to this very passage of Scripture and read these words to him: "If [a man says] to you, 'Lo, he is in the wilderness,' do not... believe [him] (Matthew 24:26)." "Oh," he said, "Jesus didn't mean our group!"
Well, that is the crack-pot approach to prophecy. But the false Christs and false prophets and their followers in the last days will say the same thing. They will relate their offer to various longings of the heart. To some who have grown tired of the rat race of life and are especially fed up with city living, they will say: "Lo, he is in the wilderness." They will suggest that the nature of the Messiah's message is a call to return to nature, to simplify life and get back to the primitive struggle of wrestling with the elements.
Others will make appeal to the lust for knowledge. They will say that the Christ can only be found in the race to unlock the mysteries of the universe. The answer will be found in the inner rooms of knowledge. When we know what we are and who we are and how we operate, then we will be able to find the mysterious presence of the Messiah. He is in the inner rooms, if anywhere at all." Does this sound familiar? In the end of the age it will not be necessary to invent any new ideas. It will only be necessary to augment the ones that are already current in life.
As a final clincher, Jesus says that these false leaders will
"...show great signs and wonders, so as to lead stray, if possible, even the elect."
Even this is nothing new. The man on the street today is so impressed by the wonders science has brought about that he is ready to believe anything is possible.
When the first H-bomb was exploded in the Pacific one reporter described the blast as, "White and hot, like the flash of a breaking electrical circuit. It turned almost instantly to bright bilious green, a color so unexpected that watchers on the beach gasped. Great green fingers of light poked out through the clouds. From the center of the blast a red glow began expanding upward. It was not the familiar orange of the tropical sunset, but a deep solid red, and the people afterwards groped for words to describe it. The glow bubbled aloft and boiled into the sky. A quarter moon-some people thought it was the fire-ball-showed through occasionally as the clouds broke and its face glowed, not pale, but a rich, strange yellow."
Another reporter on the island of Samoa reported seeing a rainbow with colored lights dancing. "Later," he said, " the rainbow faded but it left something behind that I had never felt with rainbows-elation, awe, and an unearthly fright." When man can conjure up spirits as frightful as that, who is not ready to listen? What a witches' brew of wonders will be released when the "mystery of lawlessness" in its final form makes a last, final, desperate effort to capture men's minds and sweep them over the precipice of deceit to destruction.
The False-Now the True: In contrast to the false propaganda of the last days, in Matthew 24:27,28 Jesus unveils the true method for locating him in the day of his presence. To do so he uses a parable from nature and a proverb from life: "For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of man. Wherever the body is, there the eagles will be gathered together."
The word the Lord uses for "coming" here is the now familiar "parousia." It is quite a different word than he uses a few verses farther on when he speaks of "the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory." It is easy to confuse these two comings because of his reference to lightning in verse 27. Since lightning is a form of power and glory, many feel the Lord is using it as a symbol of his coming in glory. But note carefully what he says.
Lightning flashes in the east, but the effect of it is seen all over the sky. Yet the flash itself does not involve the whole inverted dome of the heavens from east to west. When he uses the symbol of lightning, therefore, he is not describing a universally visible manifestation of his glory, but the universal effect of his presence behind the scenes. Like lightning flashes he will be seen by his own in different places, at all different times, but the effect of those appearances will be felt throughout the earth.
Furthermore, lightning is sovereign, unpredictable, uncontrollable. So will be the presence, the parousia, of the Son of man. He will appear and disappear at will. Whenever there is need for him he will be there, just as he was during the post-resurrection period. There will be no need to search for him for he cannot be found that way. There will be no need to look for him in the wilderness nor in the inner rooms, for he will come whenever and wherever he finds a heart ready to know him. In the passage parallel to this in Luke 17, Jesus says, "For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of man be in his day." A "day" used in that sense always refers to a period of time, not a sudden, climactic event.
Then, using a common proverb of the day, Jesus indicates the proper way to find him in that day, "Wherever the body is, there the eagles will be gathered together." Rather than eagles, the margin gives the proper word, vultures: "there the [vultures] will be gathered together."
When I was a boy in a remote high school in Montana, we were having basketball practice one night. At the close of the practice period the coach called one of the team members aside. I watched him go to the other side of the room. The boy was a close friend of mine and came from a rather poor family who were trying to eke out a living on a ranch about ten miles north of town. As I watched the lad's face while the coach was talking to him, I saw it blanch and after a bit the boy walked off with his head down. The coach came over to us and said, "I just gave Joe some bad news. His dad has been found dead." Then he told us how he was found.
One of the neighbors owned a ranch about four or five miles away, but separated from Joe's home by a deep canyon. The man had looked over and noticed that there was no smoke rising from the ranch house, so he saddled a horse and rode over. When he came to the silent cabin and found no one around, he began to wonder if anything had happened. As he looked about he saw in the sky about a half mile off, a number of buzzards, a type of vulture. Mounting his horse again he rode off to investigate. Beneath the spot where the buzzards circled he found the body of Joe's father. I have never forgotten that incident, and every time I read this verse I think of it. "Wherever the body is, there the [vultures] will be gathered together."
Unmistakable Marks: What does our Lord mean by this? Does he mean that he is a body, a decaying corpse? No, he is simply taking a common parable which meant that whenever the question of "where" arises about a subject, then look for some identifying activity. We have a similar proverb today, "Where there's smoke, there's fire."
In that day men will ask, "Where is Jesus Christ? How do you find him? Where is he?" The answer is, wherever you see the signs of his activity. They are always unmistakable. He comes to transform life, to make it over anew. He comes to remove delusion and deceit and to lead instead into truth and reality. He comes to deliver from guilt, from fear, and from hate. Even in those terrible days of unheard-of violence, cruelty, and death, he will be busy with his everlasting ministry. If you want to know where he is working, look for the sign of transformed lives.
It has always been true. It will be true in the days of his glorified presence on earth, but it is also true now, in the day of his spiritual presence. He is sovereign, uncontrollable, unlimited by geography. False faiths forever say "We have a corner on Christ," but the true faith says he is universally available. He is at the instant disposal of any heart which in humility and contriteness is ready to do business with him.
The Power And The Glory: Matthew 24:29-31
The most dramatic event in all history will be the visible appearing of Jesus Christ. No one can possibly miss it when it occurs. He himself describes it for us in Matthew 24:29-31:
"Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken; then will appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory; and he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other."
This is the most prophesied event in the Bible. The Old Testament contains many references to it, and it has been estimated that in the New Testament one verse out of ten refers to this coming of Jesus Christ. If all the references to this event were taken out of the New Testament, you find it unintelligible in many parts.
From "Presence" to Unveiling: But we must be careful to understand it in relation to the parousia, the presence of Jesus, which has been going on since the Church was taken out of the restrictions of time before the end of the age began. This flaming advent is part of the parousia, actually the event that marks the end of the secret presence. It is the outshining of his presence before the eyes of the whole world. What he has been in secret to his own during the dark days of the tribulation, he now will be openly before the whole world. He will especially manifest himself to the Lawless One. Paul says, "The Lord Jesus will slay him with the breath of his mouth and destroy him by his appearing and his coming" (2 Thessalonians 2:8).
That last phrase, "his appearing and his coming," is literally, "the epiphany of his parousia." Epiphany is a word that means unveiling, or outshining. Taken in that sense, Paul is calling this dramatic appearance of Jesus Christ, "the unveiling of his presence." It is the startling climax of the whole period which Jesus calls "the close of the age." The final crashing crescendo of civilization's last hour will be accomplished in three sweeping movements. Each of these is traced in broad strokes by Jesus. The first is a violent activity in nature:
"Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken."
Notice that the Lord Jesus distinctly separates this event from the Great Tribulation. The tribulation will be essentially the manifestation of the naked brutality of man, the exhibition of the cruelty and unbelievable violence of the human heart unrestrained by grace. It is described for us in detail in the book of the Revelation, especially in the judgments of the seals and the trumpets. It will be a time when the horrors of Nazi persecution, reflected in the gas chambers of Buchenwald and Dachau, will be repeated all over the earth; a time when violence stalks the streets, and the nuclear witches of terror scream through the skies. As Jesus said, it will be a day of unprecedented human evil, of terrible slaughter and human suffering.
But immediately following this tribulation terrifying signs appear in the heavens. The phrase, "the powers of the heavens will be shaken," suggests severe gravitational disturbance of the solar system. This in turn would produce phenomenal effects on the earth. Showers of meteors will flash through the darkening skies. Earthquakes cause the land to heave and shake, and great tidal waves sweep the coasts. Luke reports that, "men [will be] fainting with fear," and there will be great "distress of nations in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves." Volcanoes erupt, spouting out streams of lava and vast clouds of cinder and ash which obscure the sun and the moon. The sun is darkened and the moon reddens and is finally unable to shine at all.
Unbelievable as all this may sound to our ears, nevertheless, it very likely does not include anything which has not happened before within the memory of mankind! The Russian scientist, Immanuel Velikovsky, has amassed a tremendous amount of evidence from many sources indicating, quite apart from any religious connotation, that in the past there have occurred similar times of volcanic eruption, seismic activity, and disturbances in the solar system. It is the conviction of this scientist that the plagues of Egypt during the time of the Exodus under Moses were part of a world wide upheaval in nature caused by a comet closely approaching this earth. Its gravity drew the waters of the sea into huge tidal waves and caused volcanoes to disgorge great flows of lava which came pouring from the mountain ranges of earth. The comet then went on to become the planet Venus, which often appears in our sky as the morning star.
These theories are disparaged in some scientific circles, but all agree that Velikovsky has gathered together and enormous amount of evidence for strange happenings in the past. The discoveries of the rocket "Voyager" on its trip to Venus helped to confirm certain claims of Velikovsky concerning the nature of this planet and its origin, and there is now much scientific interest in Venus.
Even in relatively modern times there are many unexplained celestial phenomena. By no means should we assume that science is able to explain all that has taken place in even the immediate past. In one of his public speeches while president, John F. Kennedy mentioned the unexplained Dark Day which occurred in the month of May, 1780, when all of New England was for many hours plunged into total darkness. No one has ever been able to explain it, but it remains a fact of history. From time to time the papers report the falling to earth in various places of great chunks of ice weighing sometimes four to five hundred pounds. No one yet knows their origin.
Voices from the Past: To face honestly the unresolved mysteries of the past is realize how readily these words of Jesus can be fulfilled. It is not only Jesus who tells us of these earth traumas, but other prophets from the Old Testament have foretold them. For instance, Joel 2:30,31 says:
"And I will give portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes."
Isaiah also describes the same event, using very similar language in 13:9, 10:
"Behold, the day of the LORD comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the earth a desolation and to destroy its sinners from it. For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising and the moon will not shed its light."
And in Revelation 6:12-14, the apostle John describes it in very vivid terms.
"When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale; the sky vanished like a scroll that is rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place."
All these passages confirm the words of Jesus that some celestial force will create these tremendous events upon earth, and will thus introduce the final act in the drama of civilization as we know it.
The Unveiling of Christ: This violent upheaval in nature is followed immediately by the sign of the Son of man in heaven and the visible appearing of Jesus Christ to all the earth:
"Then will appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven, and then all the tribes of earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory."
As we have already noted, this is the outshining of his glory; the sudden unveiling of his presence. It is often called the "second coming," though in truth that term covers the whole period of Christ's secret presence. But it will be the second time the world sees Jesus Christ. The last time it saw him was on a bloody cross, writhing in the agonies of death, apparently a shameful failure with no glory, no power and no success. But when it sees him again it will see him coming triumphant in power and glory.
The event will be preceded by the appearance of "the sign of the Son of man" in the heavens. The disciples had asked him at the beginning of this discourse: "What will be the sign of your coming?" This question he now answers, though not as completely or clearly as they or we might have liked.
When the disciples asked the question they did not mean, as we frequently take it, "What is the sign that will mark the time of your coming?" Inevitably we associate signs with schedules. But the disciples knew better than that. They meant, "What is the event which will reveal the meaning of your coming?" This is always the purpose of signs in Scripture. That sign, Jesus now says, will appear in the sky just before he is made visible.
Let us not miss the fact that he links this sign with the statement, "then all the tribes of the earth will mourn." We shall examine that more fully a bit later, but from other Scripture it appears that he means the tribes of Israel. Since this sign is thus linked with Israel it strongly suggests that the sign will consist of the reappearance of the cloud of glory which accompanied the nation Israel as they journeyed through the wilderness for forty years. It was called the Shekinah, and was the sign of God's presence with his people. Much later, when the Temple was built and Solomon dedicated it to God, the Shekinah glory came down and took rest in the holy of holies upon the Ark of the Covenant as the sign that God was dwelling with His people.
This shining cloud may well be what Jesus himself is referring to when he says, "They will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven." There is an obvious reference to this same event in Revelation 1:7. There John says: "Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, every one who pierced him; and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him." Of course it can simply refer to the atmospheric clouds, but the repeated emphasis seems suggestive of more. When Jesus thus appears it will mark the close of the age, but it will also be the opening event of a new age, and the supreme characteristic of that new age will be that God dwells with His people. In Revelation 21:3, John describes it, "Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them." Since the Shekinah is the sign of God's presence with man, it is fitting that it should reappear as the sign that explains, clarifies, and reveals the meaning of Christ's coming. He comes that he may be, as the Old Testament prophets whispered, "Immanuel-God with us."
God With Us---In Power: The shining cloud will be followed by the dramatic appearance of Jesus Christ himself. It is not a silent appearing, not something that takes place in a corner, but a bold, triumphant revelation. As we have seen, John declares that every eye shall see him. In 2 Thessalonians 1:7,8, Paul speaks of a time: When the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance upon those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus." The present age, when God allows man to have his head, is brought to an end and God now reasserts his right to rule over all the earth. It is described in striking language in Revelation 11:15: "Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, 'The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever.'"
The reference of Jesus to his coming "with power and great glory" reminds us immediately of the closing words of the Lord's Prayer. How many times have you prayed, "For Thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory?" That prayer reflects the anticipation of God's people, through all the dark centuries, of the eventual coming of that flaming hope when the power and the glory of the universe will be in the hands of the One to whom it rightfully belongs.
It was to try to prevent this that the Tempter met Jesus in the wilderness in the beginning of his ministry and tempted him three times. The final temptation was to take him to a high mountain and show him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. There the devil said, "All these will I give you, if you will fall down and worship me." In effect he was saying, "Mine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory." And he was right!--for the moment. Jesus did not rebuke him for some preposterous claim that had no justification. Rather he answered him, using the only weapon that is available to a believer in any hour of darkness or temptation, the unchangeable word of God. He said to him: "It is written, 'You shalt worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.'"
With those words Jesus set aside the temptation to take a seeming short-cut to the goal for which he came. Instead he went on to the darkness of the cross, the agony and the blood of death, in order that he might make possible the hour he is describing here, when he will come to take the kingdoms of the world, in power and great glory.
When Israel Mourns: The unveiling of Jesus as Lord of lords and King of kings will also accomplish certain immediate events. The first will be the mourning of the nation Israel. As we have already noted, the Lord's reference to "all the tribes of the earth will mourn" does not mean tribes of Indians, but tribes of Jews. In the verse from Revelation already quoted, John says, "All tribes of the earth will wail on account of him." It will be the mourning of Israel in her hour of national sorrow.
Their mourning will be in direct fulfillment of the prophecy of Zechariah 12:10,11: "And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of compassion and supplication, so that, when they look on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a first-born. On that day the mourning in Jerusalem will be as great as the mourning for Hadadrimmon in the plain of Megiddo."
Why will they mourn? Because they will be looking on him whom they have pierced. To their utter astonishment they will discover that the One who appears in power and great glory bears in his hands the marks of nails and in his side the wound of a spear. Of course, all the world is guilty of piercing the Son of God, but the Jews were particular instruments in that respect. Perhaps the very words of their mourning are recorded for us in a well-known passage from the prophet Isaiah. In the day that Israel shall look on him whom they have pierced, they will say to each other:
"Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed."
They will recognize in that day that the one whom their fathers, in ignorance and blindness, had crucified was the one who had loved them and given himself for their sins. They will cry out in sadness and heartache over the long years of rejection that have followed his crucifixion.
Righteousness Triumphs---At Last! But that is not all that will happen to Israel when Jesus appears in power and glory. He also adds, concerning himself, "He will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other." Once again we do not need to be in doubt as to who these elect are. Isaiah 11:11, 12 helps us here:
"In that day [the context makes clear it is the end of the age] the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant which is left of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Ethiopia, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea. He will raise an ensign for the nations, and will assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth."
Jeremiah also confirms the same promise. The whole thirty-first chapter of Jeremiah should be read to note the beauty of its language and the lilting gladness of its promise. But in verses 7,8 he says:
"'...the LORD has saved his people, the remnant of Israel.' Behold, I will bring them from the north country, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, the woman with child and her who is in travail, together; a great company, they shall return here."
Certainly this gathering will include the 144,000. Perhaps also it will include as many as are left alive of the "great multitude" of Gentiles who believe in Jesus because of the testimony of the remnant of Israel. Jesus himself, in his description of this same gathering given in the parables of Matthew 13, suggests that others are included. He says, in verses 40-43:
"Just as the weeds [tares] are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age. The Son of man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father."
Many have confused this gathering by the angels with the removal of the church, described by Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4. Nothing is said here of gathering the elect into heaven, but rather, as ordinary living persons, they are gathered into an earthly kingdom. There is no resurrection of the dead mentioned at all, while in the case of the removal of the church, this is a primary emphasis.
Furthermore, when the church is removed there is no suggestion that evil men are judged, but in the passage quoted above from Matthew 13, Jesus makes clear that "all causes of sin and all evildoers" will be removed from his kingdom at the same time that the elect are gathered. This he emphasizes further in another of the Matthew 13 parables, verses 47-50:
"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net which was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind; when it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into vessels but threw away the bad. So will it be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth."
Doubtless it will be at this time that the Lawless One will come to his end as it is described by John in Revelation 19:19-21:
"And I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against him who sits upon the horse [the LORD Jesus] and against his army. And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who in its presence had worked the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with brimstone. And the rest were slain by the sword of him who sits upon the horse, the sword that issues from his mouth; and all the birds were gorged with their flesh."
The Jew and You: In this review of his dramatic return to earth, the Lord Jesus has laid great stress upon its effect on Israel. Probably you, like the vast majority today, are not Jewish but Gentile. You may well ask, "What significance has all this for me?" As we have already noted, whenever God wants us to understand how he will handle us as believers today, he holds before us the history of the nation Israel.
Briefly retrace the history of this race and you will see what is meant. In that desperate hour when they were slaves and serfs, in bondage in Egypt, the angel of death passed over and spared them, and in that first Passover they were born as a nation by the grace of God. They were redeemed, brought out of bondage, and set free. Then, in the marvelous phrasing of Moses, God carried them on eagles' wings and bore them along, upholding them, and sustaining them by miraculous interventions on their behalf. (see Exodus 19:4.)
But his goodness and grace were repaid, for the most part, by pride, arrogance, and a self-righteous effort to please him without any genuine conviction of heart. They fell to murmuring, complaining, and grumbling, in constant frustration of God's efforts with them. At last there follows the story of gradually increasing moral failure and of final dispersion in moral bankruptcy and despair.
For centuries they wandered throughout the length and breadth of the earth, preserved as a nation, but still in unbelief. Even when they were allowed to go back to Israel and establish themselves as a nation, again they did so in unbelief. But, says Jesus, the hour is coming when by an act of sovereign grace, without any merit on their part, God will bring them back again to the land. This time it will be an hour of mourning and repentance when they will understand at last what God has been wanting to do with them. They will then enter into a time of national health and wholeness and will become the instrument of blessing to all the earth.
If you read carefully the book of Romans you will see that the same story is told in chapters 5-8. These detail for us the way God has designed to bring men into genuine liberty, genuine joy and the true excitement of life. In chapters 9-11 of Romans' Israel is brought in as the illustration of all this. These trace for us the way God will work with us. When we come to the place of utter spiritual bankruptcy, when we stop thinking we can contribute something of value to God, and begin at last to rest, to rely wholly upon his ability to do everything through us-then we begin to enter into the fullness of life that God has planned for man. This is the meaning of God's dealings with Israel.
A THIEF IN THE NIGHT: Matthew 24:32-44
How can we be sure all this will happen? No doubt you have asked that more than once before now. If you have, you are not the first one to do so. In fact it would be rather strange if you haven't. Even Jesus anticipates a certain degree of honest doubt, for at this point in his discourse (verse 32) he breaks off his description of the last days to give three powerful guarantees that all he has said will actually come to pass.
"From the fig tree learn its lesson; as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates."
This is the first guarantee. It is another pattern from nature which illustrates the point he wishes to make. Everyone knows that when the trees begin to put forth their leaves it is an infallible indication that summer is near. Some have misread this to mean that the fig tree is a symbol for the nation Israel and that the Lord means to say that when Israel shows signs of life as a nation that then the end is near. Of course that is perfectly true, but that is not what he is saying here. Luke tells us that he said this is not only about the fig tree, but also of "all the trees" (Luke 21:29).
What the Lord means is that as history unfolds and it becomes apparent that the world is heading toward the conditions he describes, then men can be very sure that his coming is near. The trend of world events is the guarantee that he has been telling the truth about the future. History will confirm his predictions as it unfolds. When the world reaches the stage he describes, and the possibility of the coming of the Lawless One looms on the horizon of current affairs, then "he is near, at the very gates." We are now nearing the end of two thousand years of history and each man can judge for himself whether or not the world is approaching these events.
The Indestructible Generation: Then the Lord offers a second guarantee, contained in an often misunderstood statement in verse 34:
"Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away till all these things take place."
Many have wondered exactly what he meant by these words. Did he refer to the generation to which he was speaking, i.e., the disciples and their contemporaries? Or did he perhaps mean the generation which would be alive when the events he predicted will begin to be fulfilled? If that is what he meant, he would have been saying that when these events begin they would be completed before the generation would pass. Each of these meanings has been suggested as a possible explanation of his words.
But the truth is, he meant neither of these. Of course, if he meant the disciples' generation then his words have long ago been proven false. And the second explanation involves a very forced and unnatural meaning for the word "this." The only other alternative is that the word "generation" means the Jewish people. "This people will not pass away till all these things take place."
The Indestructible People: It is almost certain that this is what the Lord meant, for he used the word "generation" in this very sense in the previous chapter, Matthew 23:33-36. He was speaking in severe and sharp tones to the Pharisees, and he said: "You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all this will come upon this generation."
The Lord surely did not mean by this that the Pharisees and their contemporaries would bear the blame for all the injustice of the ages. No, he meant that Israel was the nation chosen to be the instrument of God to teach the whole world what he is like. When Israel failed, it became culpable for all the dire results that failure brings. It is the nation which was in view when he uses the term, "this generation."
Throughout twenty centuries of dispersion and persecution a most remarkable demonstration of the truth of the Bible has been the Jewish people and their uncanny ability to survive as an identifiable race. Despite the long centuries of hardship and cruelty they have proved to be an indestructible people. That fact constitutes proof that what Jesus predicts will surely come to pass.
Surer Than Sunrise: The third assurance Jesus offers is his own infallible promise: "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away" (verse 35). How much value do you give to what he says? This is the One who came to blind eyes-and he did! He declared he would give his life as a ransom for many-and he did! He said he would rise again from the dead-and he did! Now he says he will come again-can you believe him?
What is it we count on today as the most dependable thing we know? Is it not the continuity of events? We count on tomorrow's sun to rise, on there being a future. We lay our plans on that basis. But Jesus says that will stop, will pass away, but his words will not. His coming, then, is more certain than the most certain thing we know of. The word by which all things were called into being is the foundation upon which he rests his statement, "my words will not pass away."
Unpredictable Timing: At this point in the discourse there comes a definite break. The Lord has completed his outline of the events during the end of the age. He has revealed his parousia, his presence on earth, during the entire period of the last days and also the spectacular outshining of his presence on earth, during the entire period of the last days and also the spectacular outshining of his presence to occur at the end. But he has said very little about its beginning. Now, in verses 36-41, he brings that remarkable event before the disciples as the dominant point of emphasis:
"But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. As were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they did not know until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of man. Then two men will be in the field; one is taken and one is left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one is taken and one is left."
As we mentioned in an earlier chapter, some have confused this coming with the glorious manifestation of his presence, described in verse 30. But the first sentence of this section makes clear which aspect of his presence the Lord is describing. He states most forcefully that this coming will be completely unpredictable. "But of the day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only."
This unpredictable element is underscored heavily in the additional warning he gives the disciples in verses 42-44:
"Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the householder had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have watched and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect."
It would be impossible for Jesus to use these words if he were referring to the coming in power and great glory. Before that event occurs "the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven and the powers of the heavens will be shaken." Who could miss that? Who, knowing the Scriptures, would not expect the return of Jesus after such dramatic events? But to his disciples he says, "The Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect."
This is clearly then his coming as a thief in the night. It is his coming for the church, the unsuspected treasure of earth. He will come to take it to himself, and the world will have no inkling that it is about to occur. As he has just said, we can know that the time is drawing near as we observe the predicted pattern taking shape in the affairs of men. We can see the attitudes that he says will prevail in that day beginning to emerge as the dominant philosophy of the day. But we can never know the day nor the hour. Even the angels do not know, nor did the Son in the time of his earthly limitation, but only the Father.
Men seem to display an urgent passion to set dates for the coming of Christ. Several times in history it has been announced that Jesus Christ would return on such and such a date. Some fanatics who believed these reports sold their property, donned white robes, and gone out on some hilltop to wait for him to appear. The whole subject of the return of Christ has been cast into disrepute by such foolish actions. God has maintained an inscrutable silence about certain matters and this is one of them. The day nor the hour is clearly marked "Top Secret," just as Jesus told the disciples after the resurrection, "It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority" (Acts 1:7). The activity Jesus wants to encourage is not date-setting but readiness.
Business as Usual: Jesus makes even more forceful this totally unexpected character of his initial coming by comparing it to the days of Noah in verses verse 37-39:
"As were the days of Noah, so will be the coming [parousia] of the Son of man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they did not know until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of man."
There have been many attempts to make these words, "eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage," to indicate signs of evil things in the affairs of men. "Eating" has been taken to mean an increase in gluttony throughout the earth. It is, of course, true that one of the signs of middle age is to grow thick, and tired of it, but this is not a sign of the times! Also, "drinking" has been taken to mark an increase in alcoholism and drunkenness, while "marrying and giving in marriage" has been made to refer to the rocketing divorce rate.
But there is no thought of this in the mind of our Lord. What he is saying is, life will be going on as usual. Men will eat, drink and marry just as they have always done. It was like that in the days of Noah, before the flood. Life was going on in ordinary fashion. Moral conditions were bad, there was violence and corruption throughout the earth, but they were not worse than they had been for quite some time.
The point our Lord makes is that "they did not know" until the flood came. There was no sense of any coming disaster. This went on, despite the preaching of Noah for one hundred and twenty years, during which he faithfully warned his generation that God would judge the world of that day. And despite the familiar sight of the huge ark that was built a long way from any ocean large enough to float it. Men must have laughed and called him "crazy Noah." But life went on as usual and the first sign of any coming disaster was the quiet, almost unnoticed removal of a select company from the world of that day.
Noah and his family were told to take the animals and go into the ark. God shut the door of the ark so that Noah and his family, eight people in all, were separated from the world. Then a full week went by and nothing happened. Noah, his family and all the animals were in the ark for a week and during that time the skies were blue, the sun shone, men went to work in the morning and came home in the evening. Lovers strolled hand in hand as they had done for centuries. Babies cried, men ate and drank and rose up to play; life went on as usual. Then suddenly clouds began to form, the skies darkened, the earth began to heave, the bottom of the sea raised and great tidal waves came crashing across the earth, the skies poured down untold tons of water for forty days and forty nights. All those who lived in the world of that day,"Went down with a bubbly groan, not mourned, unhonored and unknown."
So, the Lord says, will be the "parousia," the coming as a thief in the night. Jesus Christ will come stealthily, without warning, and a select company will be removed from the earth. That event he plainly describes in verses 40,41: "Then two men will be in the field; one is taken and one is left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one is taken and the other is left."
A Selective Removal: The event will be highly selective, distinguishing even between two people working side by side. Further, it will be worldwide, for Luke tells us (17:34), "There will be two men in one bed; one will be taken, and the other left." While men work in their fields on one side of the earth, others will be asleep in their beds on the other side. But simultaneously, both in the day and in the night, the great removal will occur.
From human experience we feel there is only one way to leave this life. We enter it through the door marked "birth," and we will leave it through the door marked "death." But on the Mount of Transfiguration the Lord showed Peter, James and John that there is another way by which men could go to glory. He was suddenly transfigured before their astonished eyes. His raiment began to glow and he was a different person, yet the same Jesus.
So Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:51,52: "We shall not all sleep [die], but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye." It is an event simply unexplainable in natural terms, but there can be no questions about the clear language Scripture employs. As Paul told the Thessalonians: "The dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air" (1 Thessalonians 4:16,17).
There are some Bible scholars who take the Lord's words, "one is taken and the other left," in a somewhat different light. They feel the ones taken are not taken to glory but taken in judgment during the tribulation, i.e., killed, while the ones left are left alive to enter into the kingdom following. This, they say, would be more in line with the illustration the Lord uses of Noah's flood where men were swept away by the judgment of the flood.
But several severe objections appear to this opinion. First, no one was left behind in Noah's flood. They were all taken in judgment and there was nothing selective about it. The only ones who survived were Noah and his family who were taken out of the flood before it began. Second, the word the Lord uses for "taken" is a different Greek word from that which is used for the effect of the flood. That is one word, translated, "swept away." Third, the picture the Lord draws is one of sudden, unexpected removal and it is quite a straining of that picture to imagine execution as always occurring in that manner throughout the Tribulation. Fourth, if the Lord is not here describing his coming for the church then we have no description from his lips of that tremendous event. All we would have would be his promise, "I will come again and will take you to myself" (John 14:3).
Because of these objections it is much more plausible to view this passage as our Lord's clear description of his coming "as a thief in the night," accomplishing a silent resurrection and transfiguration which will take the true church out of judgment of the tribulation, as Noah and his family were taken out of the judgment of the flood. To this vivid description of the silent departure of the church, the Lord immediately adds a word of admonition: "Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the householder had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have watched, and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect."
Notice carefully his argument here. He says that if the householder had known when the thief was coming he would have watched and prevented the robbery. That is, if a man knows he is to be robbed at night, and knows the very hour in which it will take place, he will be ready for the burglar when he comes. No burglar sends a notice ahead of time of his arrival, but if he did he could count on being met by a reception committee. When the robber arrived, the householder would be ready.
So says Jesus, since you do not know when your Lord is coming, then keep ready all the time. Be always ready. Surely that does not mean we are to gaze skyward all the time, or fold our hands and sit down to wait for him. Some years ago a religious magazine published a cartoon that showed a man standing in a wheat field. The sheaves had been stacked in bundles waiting for the harvest. He was standing there with a telescope glued to his eyes looking out to the horizon. Underneath was the caption, "Looking for the coming of the Lord." It suggested that such looking was foolish while the fields were white unto harvest all around, and nothing was being done.
It is very difficult, of course, to keep one eye peeled toward the sky while doing your daily work. But our Lord does not mean this when he says, "Watch!" What does he mean? Clearly one thing he means by this, as highlighted throughout this discourse, is, be not deceived! He has been warning of the deceitfulness of the age. We shall be surrounded by the spurious, the phony, which will nevertheless dazzle us and draw us. If we believe the lies that are part of the great brainwashing campaign behind the philosophy of the world, we shall soon lose our perspective. Life will then get out of focus and we shall become blinded and tragically self-deceived.
The only defense is a continuous, step-by-step, reliance on the truth of God, illuminated to us by an indwelling Holy Spirit. Jesus said, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free" (John 8:31,32). That is why we desperately need the Word of God, and the Spirit of God to apply that Word to our daily experience. The only defense against deceit is an obedient ear and a willingness to follow the promptings of the Spirit into an unceasing ministry of loving concern and service, in the name of Jesus Christ. In another place, Jesus said "Occupy till I come" (Luke 19:13, KJV). That means, keep going, keep busy in the strength and the purpose of God.
A Strange Paradox: Many Christians seem to feel that waiting for Christ's coming means that we must behave ourselves lest we should suddenly be caught short by his appearing and be ashamed of what we were doing. But Jesus is no policeman, waiting to surprise us in an unguarded moment. The paradox of the Christian life is that though we look for him to come, yet all the while we are enjoying his presence and experiencing his power. He is coming, and yet he is with us now.
What Jesus wants us to grasp is that these two activities are related. The intensity with which we love his coming is the revelation of the degree to which we are experiencing his presence. The hunger you may feel to see his face is directly proportionate to the present enjoyment you have of his presence. If, to you, the thought of his coming is a frightening thing, then you know little or nothing of his presence now. But if you do know what it means to live by Christ, if moment by moment with your whole being you are taking from him all that he makes available to you, you will find a longing, a yearning in your heart for his personal coming. A Christian poetess, Annie Johnson Flint, has put that thought in a wonderful fashion:
"It is not for a sign we are watching
For wonders above and below,
The pouring of vials of judgment,
The sounding of trumpets of woe;
It is not for a Day we are looking,
Not even the time yet to be
When the earth shall be filled with God's glory
As the waters cover the sea;
It is not for a King we are longing
To make the world-kingdoms His own;
It is not for a Judge who shall summon
The nations of earth to His throne.
Not for these, though we know they are coming;
For they are but adjuncts of Him,
Before whom all glory is clouded,
Besides whom all splendor grows dim.
We wait for the Lord, our Beloved,
Our Comforter, Master and Friend,
The substance of all that we hope for,
Beginning of faith, and its end;
We watch for our Savior and Bridegroom,
Who loved us and made us His own;
For Him we are looking and longing:
For Jesus, and Jesus alone."*
The great Scottish minister, Horatio Bonar, on one occasion sat with a number of fellow ministers. He said to them, "Do you really expect Jesus Christ to come today?" One by one he went around the circle and put that question to each. And one by one they shook their heads and said, "No, not today." Then without comment he wrote on a piece of paper these words and passed it around:
"Therefore you also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect."
IN THE MEAN TIME: Matthew 24:45-51
In a small country store in a southern state a Negro lady came to do her shopping. Two or three young Negro men were standing around passing the time of day, and knowing that she was a Christian, they began to taunt her. "We hear you're expecting Jesus to come back," they said. "I sure am," she replied brightly. "Do you really believe he's coming?" they asked. "Sure as you're born," she answered. They said, "Well you'd better hurry home and get ready, he might be on the way!" She turned and fixed her tormentors with a look. "I don't have to get ready," she said, "I keep ready!"
That is exactly the attitude the Lord meant to engender when he said to his disciples, "Watch!" He does not mean, "Keep staring at the sky." He means "Keep ready at all times." Now to make it perfectly clear what that would involve he goes on to give them three parables, each of which is an exposition of that one word, "Watch!" The first is the parable of the household which tells us that watching means a mutual concern and ministry of the Word to one another. The second is the parable of the ten maidens which makes clear that watching means a dependence on deeper things than mere human resources. And the third is the parable of the talents where we learn that watching means a deliberate investment of life.
Three Illustrative Parables: It is evident that the Lord now finished, for the most part, the predictive part of his discourse. Except for a few details concerning the final scene of the nations, there are no new events described in the rest of his message. But it is extremely important that we understand these parables, for if we do not understand them we will not watch in the way he expects. And if we do not watch we will be deceived and miss much, if not all, of the exciting possibilities of the present hour. So let us listen carefully to his parable of the household, verses 45-47:
"Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master when he comes will find so doing. Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions."
This parable is clearly for the instruction of those who are awaiting the Lord's return. The master of the household is gone but he has entrusted certain work to his steward until he returns. That work is primarily a ministry to the rest of the household, and notably, "to give them their food at the proper time." It is clearly addressed to the disciples and to those who will follow in their steps in the ministry of feeding and shepherding the church of Jesus Christ. Doubtless it includes any who have a ministry of teaching: pastors, evangelists, prophets, elders, Sunday School teachers, children's workers and Bible class leaders. It takes in any who have gifts of teaching, whether exercised in a church building or in homes. It includes theological professors, editors of magazines, radio teachers, missionaries, youth workers, and many others.
Give Them Food! Since this is the first parable in the series it probably points up the most essential element in the matter of watching. The wise servant is given one major and primary responsibility: to feed the household at the proper time. If this is rightly done, the household will keep watching; if it is neglected, the household will languish and starve, and will not be ready when the Lord returns.
The task, therefore, of any leader within the church is to unfold the message of the Bible. Every pastor should set a loaded table before his congregation, not only that they might eat and grow, but also that they might learn from him how to draw from the Scriptures for themselves the spiritual nourishment they need. The Bible is wonderfully adapted to this purpose: there is milk for the beginner, bread for the more advanced, and strong meat to challenge and feed the mature. It is so designed that when books of the Bible are taught through consecutively they will cover a wide variety of subjects and yet keep truth marvelously in balance.
It is clearly evident, therefore, that the supreme need of the church during this time of waiting for its Lord is Bible study and knowledge. From this all else will flow. The Bible is the revelation of things as they really are. It represents the only truly realistic look at life that is available to man today. It is the only instrument provided by God that is adequate to the task of producing mature, well-adjusted, whole persons. That is the clear claim of 2 Timothy 3:16,17: "All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work."
I am the Bread of Life: Be careful that you do not conclude from this that the Bible itself is the food for believers. It is not the book but the Lord which the book reveals that is our food. Christ is found in the Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments. But Bible study alone can be most dull and uninteresting if one does not expect the Spirit to take the words and from them cause the living Christ to emerge. That explains why some Bible students are such dull and dry people; they have concentrated on the Word alone, without the Spirit. And yet it is impossible to know the Lord Jesus in the fullness of his being without the revelation of the Word. We cannot neglect the Bible and grow in Christ; but we can grow in the knowledge of Scripture and never feed upon a risen Lord.
The Incredible Reward: Imagine the joy of that servant when his lord returns and finds him faithfully at the task he assigned him. "Blessed is that servant," says Jesus. The Greek word for "blessed" can also be translated "happy." What a satisfying feeling it will be to know that he did his work well in the eyes of the only one who counts. What shall be done for such a man? What the Lord says next is truly amazing. Listen to it: "Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions." In another place Jesus said, "You have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much" (Matthew 25:21). This is the invariable rule of the kingdom of God.
When you consider who this master really is, it becomes almost incredible that he should reward this servant by setting him over all his possessions. How much is that? Well, Paul wrote in I Corinthians 3:21-23: "For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future, all are yours; and you are Christ's; and Christ is God's."
There is a staggering thought in Paul's letter to the Ephesians which sums all this up in the phrase, "the unsearchable riches of Christ." Who can tell what boundless opportunities, what indescribable adventures of service, what fabulous vistas of challenge, are involved in a phrase like that? Surely one thing is clear: the commitment and labor required to fulfill the ministry of teaching which the Lord has left for us to do will not be worthy to be compared with what shall belong to a "faithful and wise servant" when the Lord returns.
The Unfaithful Servant: But unfortunately not every servant of the Lord proves to be wise and faithful. With the utter candor that characterizes him, Jesus gives the negative side of the picture in verses 48-51:
"But if that wicked servant says to himself, 'My master is delayed,' and begins to beat his fellow servants, and eats and drinks with the drunken, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will punish him, and put him with the hypocrites; there men will weep and gnash their teeth."
It is evident that this servant has the same ministry committed to him as the first one. He, too, is expected "to give them their food at the proper time." The same storehouse of the Word is at his disposal so that he too can feed the hungry of the household whenever they need it. The health and welfare of the household is his responsibility and depends upon his faithful ministry.
But this servant is different. When his lord does not come as soon as he expects, he says to himself, "My master is delayed." There is more than a hint here that the return of the Lord Jesus will be delayed far beyond the expectations of men. The apostles expected him in the first century, but he did not come. Now many centuries have gone by, and the effect of that long delay has been what the Lord here predicts. Many who claim to be his servants have given up hope of his return. The former bishop of the Episcopal Church, James Pike, himself one who had given up such a hope, stated that "only 24% of Episcopalians, by survey, believe it."* The effect of that lost hope is immediately apparent. The servant, says the Lord, begins to beat his fellow servants, mistreat them, criticize and complain continually, neglect his ministry, and indulge his appetites to the full. It is a vivid picture of what happens, in one degree or another, when the expectation of the Lord's return is abandoned. There is a precise sequence of failure that can be traced. First, the hope of the Lord's return grows weak and eventually is lost. Because of this there is little motivation to the ministry of feeding the household, and therefore it is neglected. When the Word is not taught the people grow spiritually weak, and therefore full of weakness and carnality. This then manifests itself in quarreling, injustices, and excesses of every sort, in which the servant responsible for the feeding also joins.
It should be obvious from this that the fact of Christ's return is more important as a doctrine of the church than may at first appear. As we have already seen, it is an indicator of the degree to which the Lord's present indwelling life is being experienced. If there is little desire for his appearing, there is little concern to walk in the strength of his life. When the hope of the Lord's return crumbles, then it is already apparent that the experience of his life has largely ceased, if it existed at all. That is why the Lord lays such stress upon this and underscores it as the primary cause for the neglect of Bible teaching and the subsequent weakness of the church.
But though the servant has given up on the Lord's return, that does not prevent the Lord from returning. Suddenly he appears at an hour which the servant does not know and at a time when he does not expect him. Undoubtedly this will be one of those occasions when the servant will say, "Lord, Lord, have I not done mighty works in your name?" There may indeed be other things he has done which he felt would be impressive to the Lord if he returned. But it is all to no avail. He has specifically not done the one thing the Lord required of him. He has been faithless to his commission. Therefore he shall be punished and put where he belongs-with the hypocrites! He is himself a hypocrite, for he has assumed the name of a faithful servant of the Lord, but has proved false to his trust.
It is obvious from what our Lord says of this man, that he has never been a true servant at all. His destiny is to be put in the place where men will weep and gnash their teeth. Further on, in chapter 25, verse 30, the Lord describes that place as "outer darkness." It is a place of frustration and defiance. Men weep because of their lost opportunities; they gnash their teeth out of bitter rage and defiance. It is not a pleasant picture, but let us remember, it is the Lord Jesus Christ who thus describes it to us.
A Demoralized Household: The Lord has made crystal clear by this parable that it is a very serious thing to fail in feeding the household of God. It is not because the man's personal failure has a demoralizing effect upon the household. This has been most apparent in the church. One of the haunting problems in the church today is its identity crisis. In many places it seems to have lost the sense of what it was intended to be. Instead of a body, with each one "members one of another" and ministering to one another in love and concern, it has become an organization operating various programs. Paul wrote to the Galatians, "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2). But today's Christians often touch each others' lives on only the most superficial basis, and do not want to hear another's problems because they "don't want to get involved."
This widespread ignorance of the church's true nature is directly traceable to a lack of systematic Bible teaching. Many passages in the New Testament epistles plainly detail the true nature of the church. Its "body life" is clearly described and illustrated from actual experience. Its supernatural endowment with spiritual gifts as the basis for all its ministry is described in half a dozen places. Its unique power, deriving from the presence of an indwelling and active Lord, is set before us again and again. The way to the consistent exercise of spiritual power, making its impact upon a decadent society, is detailed in many places.
Results of Biblical Ignorance: But how much does the average Christian know of this? The blunt answer is: scarcely anything! The degree of biblical illiteracy, prevalent in American churches, is beyond belief. And the widespread effect, visible everywhere, is a powerless, quarreling, materialistic church whose knowledge of its Lord's living presence is almost nil, and whose hope of his soon return has long ago burned out into gray embers.
The cause for this sterile mediocrity is, says Jesus, faithless and wicked servants who have never assumed or have given up the task of feeding the household at the proper time. He views this failure with the greatest solemnity. There is a sobering word from Paul in I Corinthians 3:17: "If any one destroys God's temple, God will destroy him. For God's temple is holy, and that temple you are." Consequently we should not be surprised to hear Jesus say that when the master of the house returns he will confront the faithless servant and "will punish him, and put him with the hypocrites; there men will weep and gnash their teeth."
The Secrets of the Heart: In both of these cases, that of the faithful and that of the faithless servant, it is evident that the return of Jesus Christ simply reveals what men have been all the time. "Each man's work will become manifest," says Paul, "for the Day will disclose it" (1 Corinthians 3:13). The truly shocking thing about that is that what we are proved to be in that Day, we must continue to be forever! What we have been in the secret places of the heart through life must now be displayed as our true self through eternity.
Thus the Lord desires to emphasize to us that the present time is an exceedingly precious commodity. It is given to us to redeem. Helmut Thielicke,* a noted German author, points out that on New Year's Eve we learn something about time we can never learn in any other way. Then we look at our watch or clock quite differently from any other day of our lives. Usually we glance at our watch in order to see what time we should be at a certain place, or whether we are going to make an appointment on time. But on New Year's Eve we suddenly, look at it, not in order to move ourselves, but because we become aware of the fact that time itself is moving.
Our Personal Time Line: Dr. Thielicke says that then we can almost hear the stream of time beginning to murmur as it drops over the dam of that strange midnight hour. We become aware of the fact that we are not living an endless repetitive cycle, but we are moving on a straight line of time and we can never retrace it. The reason we do not experience this more frequently is because our clocks are round; that is, if we haven't finished something by six o'clock this morning we know that the hands of the clock will come around to six o'clock tonight, and we can get it done by then. Or by six o'clock tomorrow night. We suffer, therefore, from the illusion that time is repeating itself.
But on New Year's Eve, we discover otherwise. We become quite aware, as the midnight hour approaches, that time is moving continually on and that we can never go back, that what we have been will unalterably remain, forever. It can never be changed. We can never retrace our steps nor refill the contents of the past with something either better or worse. It remains exactly what it was. Perhaps last year we made a wrong decision or got married (the two are not necessarily linked) or entered into some new project or achieved some goal. Whatever it was, that has now become an unchangeable part of our destiny, our lot. It is irrevocably the same, it can never be changed. God's grace has moved him to bear certain effects of our misdeeds himself, but they remain for him to bear and are never dissipated into nothingness. If that grace is rejected, there is no escape.
A Final New Year's Eve: This is what the sudden intervention of Jesus Christ into human affairs seems to be: a final New Year's Eve midnight hour when men will become aware that life has been lived, and it is whatever it is and will never be any different. No one can go back and change it. That leaves us facing an inevitable question: How long have you lived? "Oh," you say, "I am (so many) years old." No, you cannot answer in those terms. The only part of life that can be called living is the time you have been watching for your Lord's return in the strength of his abiding life. All else is death.
The great missionary to Africa, C. T. Studd, summed up the truth in a little couplet:
"Only one life, 'twill soon be past, Only what's done for Christ will last."
Now let us ask it again: How long have you lived? How much of your life will abide the day of his coming? Whatever is not gold, silver or precious stones, coming from the activity of his life in you, is nothing more than hay, wood, and stubble. When are you going to start living? You only have today!
From http://pbc.org/dp/stedman/olivet/. The PBC bookstore carries this series in book form as "What on Earth is Happening."
Class notes and audio files are here: http://ldolphin.org/cleanpages/