The Olivet Discourse:
Matthew 24, 25
Jesus Predicts the Future
pages 13-47 of God Cares Volume Two
By Mervyn Maxwell
| Jesus Predicts the Future is the first chapter in the book God Cares Volume Two by Mervyn Maxwell. Such abbreviations as GC 1:11 or GC 2:77 have been left in the following chapter and refer to this two volume set of God Cares—volume number, then page number. I beleive this set of books is one of the best contemproary interpretations of Daniel (Volume 1) and Revelation (Volume 2) in print today. They can be purchased at Pacific Press Publishing or at an Adventist Book Center —in paper-back and hard-back.|
A group of grade-school girls came to our home one year to learn basic cooking methods from my wife. At the end of the course they planned and prepared a meal for their parents. From behind the closed door of my study I heard their excited squeals and gasps as mealtime drew near.
My study door was located close to and just inside the front door. For a bit of mischief, at about the time when the girls expected their parents to arrive, I knocked loudly on the inside of my study door as if I were the first parents arriving. The girls almost exploded. Untying their aprons, running combs through their hair, achieving last-minute changes on the table, they dashed to the front door and flung it wide.
I didn’t leave them disappointed long! I opened my study door, and when they saw me laughing, they laughed merrily too. In fact, after their parents did arrive, they laughed about their surprise all through the meal.
The excitement of our young cooks resembles the excitement that all true Christians feel when they think about the second coming of Christ. What joy it is to contemplate the moment when Jesus will return to put a stop to injustice, sickness, and poverty, and to bring in endless ages of prosperity and peace.
Such good news was, of course, the kind of thing Jesus Himself enjoyed talking about; and He did talk about it on different occasions, one of the most notable of which occurred not long before His death. On Tuesday night of Passion Week, the week that led up to His Friday crucifixion, Jesus talked about His glorious return in what is known as the Olivet Discourse. We have referred to the Olivet Discourse several times before. See God Cares, vol. 1, pages 11, 151, and 160 (abbreviated GC 1:11, 151, 160. The pagination matches the revised, full-color edition). Analyzing it now will help us considerably in understanding Revelation.
So very joyous is the prospect of Christ’s return, that Jesus knew His followers would become eagerly impatient for His arrival. In such a state of mind they (like our little cooks) could easily fall prey to false signs (like the knock on my study door) and to false teachers, who could entirely spoil their preparation. So He began the discourse by warning us against being deceived.
And because “hope deferred makes the heart sick” (Proverbs 13:12), Jesus cautioned clearly but tactfully that there would be a delay. He would not be coming back right away. He told a story about two supervisors and put into the mouth of one of them the words, “My master is delayed.” Matthew 24:48. In the famous parable of the talents, He described the master as returning “after a long time.” Matthew 25:19. In the equally famous parable of the ten sleepy girls He likened Himself to a bridegroom and said plainly, “As the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept.” Matthew 25:5.
Hints of the delay are implied in other verses: “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, . . . but the end is not yet.” Matthew 24:6. “Many will fall away.” Verse 10. “He who endures to the end will be saved.” Verse 13. “This gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nations; and then the end will come.” Verse 14. (Throughout this volume, emphasis in Bible texts is always supplied by the author.)
But if the delay is clear enough, the preparation we need to attend to is made even plainer in several remarks and in four distinct parables. See pages 36-42.
The setting of the Olivet Discourse. The Olivet Discourse was delivered after dark on a Tuesday. It had been a difficult day. For hours Jesus reasoned with crowds in the temple courts. Repeatedly, enemies baited Him with loaded questions. Some of the people seemed to appreciate what He said, but Jesus knew that most, even of them, were looking at Him as a military king, not as the Prince of Peace. They wanted Him to conquer the Romans. They didn’t want Him to conquer their hearts with love. You can read a little of what happened that day in Matthew 22 and 23.
As the afternoon wore on, it became evident that Christ’s three and a half years of selfless ministry had changed very few of them.
In a couple of days they would yell for His blood, just as their forefathers had demanded the death of the prophets. And their descendants would be just as bad. They too would persecute preachers who tried to help them.
Toward evening Christ’s heart was breaking. He knew that without repentance the Jewish people would suffer terrible retribution. Their recalcitrance would at last so infuriate the Romans that the emperor would send armies which in A.D. 70 would erase Jerusalem and its temple from the map. And it would be so unnecessary!
“0 Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” He sobbed, “killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not.” Matthew 23:37.
“You would not let me.” N.E.B.
“You were unwilling.” N.A.S.B.
“Behold!” The anguished sentence came painfully forth: “Your house is forsaken and desolate.” Matthew 23:38.
Even Christ’s disciples were stunned. The temple of God, the pride of the nation, the house of the Lord, forsaken and desolate!
Ill at ease, the crowd dispersed to prepare the evening meal. Nervously, the disciples called Christ’s attention to the exquisite artistry of the famous edifice. See Matthew 24:1. For almost fifty years King Herod and his successors had been rebuilding it at enormous expense. See John 2:20. Its snowy marble glistened in the setting sun. Gold plate flashed and glowed around the main entrance. Some of the temple stones, almost perfectly squared and smoothed, were of nearly incredible dimensions.
“You see all these?” Jesus asked, almost as if He hadn’t heard the disciples. “Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down.” Matthew 24:2.
The disciples were dumbfounded. How could God permit so great a disaster? Could it be that the end of the world was at hand?
That night Jesus seated Himself on the Mount of Olives. With Him were Peter and his brother Andrew, and James and his brother John, the four former fishermen who had accompanied Him throughout His ministry. See Mark 13:3. Above them in the early darkness rode the moon, nearly full. In its mystic glow the city of Jerusalem loomed a hundred meters, or about three hundred feet, below them across the narrow Kidron Valley. Olive oil lamps glimmered through countless windows. A spirit as of Christmas or Thanksgiving pervaded the air in anticipation of Passover, due in a couple of days. People from far and near gathered with friends inside the walls or camped outside. Sounds of dogs and donkeys and of families preparing for the night floated up to where the five men sat.
The temple seemed almost close enough to touch. Moonlight heightened its whiteness and size. The disciples contemplated its polished and massive stones. They were deeply troubled by Christ’s prediction a few hours earlier that someday not one of these stones would be left upon another. But would that terrible day of disaster also be the glorious day of His return? They didn’t understand!
“Tell us,” they asked, perplexed, “when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” Matthew 24:3.
You may read Christ’s reply in Matthew 24 and 25. His words are printed on the next 3 pages, with headings inserted to help you. After you have read what Jesus said, we’ll probe into what He meant.
1. The Olivet Discourse is recorded principally in Matthew 24 and 25. Parallel records are found in Mark 13 and Luke 21. Luke also has what at first reading seems to be part of the discourse located in a very different setting. Compare Luke 17:22-37 with Matthew 24:23-28. This lets us know that Jesus must have discussed His second coming on many other occasions and in many different settings.
2. The well known Jewish historian, Josephus, who was present at the destruction of Jerusalem, wrote that “the exterior of the building wanted [lacked] nothing that could astound either mind or eye. For, being covered on all sides with massive plates of gold, the sun was no sooner up than it radiated so fiery a flash that persons straining to look at it were compelled to avert their eyes, as from the solar rays. To approaching strangers it appeared from a distance like a snow-clad mountain; for all that was not overlaid with gold was of purest white. From its summit protruded sharp golden spikes to prevent birds from settling upon and polluting the roof. Some of the stones in the building were forty-five cubits in length, five in height, and six in breadth.” The Jewish War, 5.222 (Loeb 3:269). A cubit at the time was about half a meter, or around eighteen inches.
The Message of Matthew 24, 25
I. Christ’s Caution About “Signs”
How much we depend on signs! Especially on road signs. We search for them often in vain at important intersections in unfamiliar cities. We appreciate the prominent signs on major freeways.
I remember a series of signs leading to a particularly bad bend on Salisbury Plain, England, during my childhood. The final sign was oversize and fairly shouted, “YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.”
Just after our son was born I received a traffic ticket for going through a stop sign in Chicago. To be sure, my mind had wandered; but when I returned to see how I could have missed the stop sign, I found a clutter of café and liquor signs hanging from little shops right behind it. I doubt that I would have missed it, even with a new father’s fuddle, if it had been like the sign on Salisbury Plain.
“Tell us,” pleaded the disciples, “when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” Matthew 24:3.
A dual question. The disciples’ question reveals their confusion. They combined two distinct events. “When will this be?” they asked, referring to the destruction of the temple, and “What will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” referring to the end of the world. The end of the temple and the end of the world at the second coming of Christ seemed to the four disciples to be a single event. They supposed that only the end of the world could bring about the destruction of the principal site of the worship of the true God.
Combining the two events into one, they sought a single item of information, “When will this be?” that is, “What will be the sign” indicating that it is near?
Commentators feel that in wording His reply, Jesus Himself blended information about both events, the end of the temple and the end of the world. No doubt there was a degree of blending; but the headings provided on pages 16-18 reveal that Christ’s statements can be sorted out rather easily. In any case, Jesus provided distinct and different signs for the two important events.
Distinct and dependable signs. For the fall of the temple Jesus gave one unmistakable sign: the “desolating sacrilege ... standing in the holy place” (Matthew 24:15), a symbolic prediction which He explained in Luke 21:20 as “Jerusalem surrounded by armies.”
For the end of the world, Jesus gave a unique and very short list of signs: The preaching of the gospel in all the world (Matthew 24:14), a cluster of astronomical phenomena (verse 29), and the actual manner of His return on clouds and visible as lightning (verses 27, 30).
The manner of His return. At first blush, Jesus seems to have evaded the disciples’ question. His most emphatic sign of the destruction of Jerusalem was the arrival of the enemy. His most emphatic sign about the end of the world was the manner of His own arrival! But Jesus was deeply in earnest.
As things turned out (and as Jesus knew they would turn out), the arrival of enemy soldiers at Jerusalem in A.D. 66 did prove to be all the sign that the Jerusalem Christians needed. For the soldiers suddenly withdrew from the city, and everyone who wished to escape was able to do so before the Romans returned in force. See pages 27, 28.
As for the signs of His second coming, Jesus was very serious about the manner of His return. “Then will appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven,” He said, adding, “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.” Verse 30.
The “sign of the Son of man” is His appearance “on the clouds of heaven.” Just as British royalty drive to state occasions in their well known golden carriage and United States presidents fly in Air Force One, so at supremely significant moments the Son of man travels on supernatural clouds.
The Bible mentions three such cloudy occasions: (1) Christ’s ascension from earth to heaven, when “a cloud took him out of their [the disciples’] sight.” Acts 1:9. (2) The onset of the pre-advent judgment, when the Son of man traveled on clouds to the Ancient of Days. See Daniel 7:9-14; Revelation 12, 13, 14. (3) The second coming, when, Revelation 1:7 says, “He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him.” The visible, on cloud arrival of Jesus Christ is supremely the “sign” of the Son of man.
Cautions and warnings. In asking for a sign of His second coming, the disciples were seeking early warning data that could tip them off about the timing of God’s last minute countdown. Today, of course, we would like to have the same inside information. So naturally we find ourselves asking, What use is a sign of His coming that is simply the manner of it?
We’ll return to this question on page 22. In the meantime, we are impressed that Jesus was not greatly interested in setting up any last-day time table. Six weeks later, when the disciples asked Him, moments before His ascension, “Will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority.” Acts 1:6, 7.
The very first thing Jesus said in the Olivet Discourse in answer to the disciples’ request for a sign was this: “Take heed that no one leads you astray.” Matthew 24:4. Don’t be deceived! Don’t be misled by false christs and false signs. Don’t be conned into assuming that the end of Jerusalem or the end of the world will come sooner than it really will. See verses 5-8. Like the sign on Salisbury Plain, Jesus was stating boldly, “YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.” Don’t be confused by any clutter of non-signs.
Signs that aren’t signs. It is in the Olivet Discourse that the famous phrase occurs about “wars and rumors of wars.” Verse 6. For centuries, Bible Christians have quoted this phrase while reflecting on contemporary international events. Over and over they have convinced themselves, for the time being, that Jesus must be coming soon. But Jesus specifically warned that wars and rumor of wars are not necessarily signs of the end. “The end is not yet,” He said in respect to them.
“See that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: all this is but the beginning of the birth-pangs.” Verses 6-8.
In any case, the location of the wars, famines, and earthquakes within the Olivet Discourse itself shows that Jesus had in mind events that were to occur during the thirty-nine years that remained prior to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Four major famines are known even from the short reign of the Roman emperor Claudius (A.D. 41-54). One of them is reported in Acts 11:28. Serious earthquakes are known to have occurred around the empire in Crete (in 46 or 47) and in Rome (in 51). Rome fought significant wars in Mauretania (41-42), Britain (43-61), and Armenia (early 60s). In Armenia, it happens, Rome suffered a notable setback in A.D. 62, news of which must have falsely encouraged Jewish revolutionaries in Palestine.
Guerrilla and terrorist activity engulfed Palestine during these years. “Galilee,” Josephus reports, naming only one area of Palestine, became from end to end “a scene of fire and blood.”
Christ’s point was that disasters and defeats and wars and famines are not “signs” of the approaching end, either of Jerusalem or of the world. For our sin-drenched planet, sad to say, such sorrows are business as usual.
False christs and false prophets. Jesus warned also about the appearance of false christs and false prophets. See verses 4, 5, 23, 24. Compare Mark 13:6, 21-23.
In the thirty-nine years between the Olivet Discourse (A.D. 31) and the fall of Jerusalem (A.D. 70), numerous false leaders did arise. Josephus says that Palestine was torn by numerous “deceivers and imposters” who preyed on the people’s hopes and fears and fomented revolution against Rome “under the pretence of divine inspiration.” One of these imposters, a certain Egyptian “false prophet,” invited adventuresome Jews to rendezvous at his desert outpost. Thousands responded, believing him to be the messiah who would deliver Jerusalem from Roman control. But the Romans got wind of him and got ready. When the attack took place, almost every Jew who followed this particular false christ lost his life. Only the Egyptian himself and a few of his followers escaped. Some time later, incidentally, a Roman officer mistook the apostle Paul for this same Egyptian. See Acts 21:38.
In the Olivet Discourse, Jesus warned about false christs and false prophets in the section dealing with the second coming as well as in the section dealing with the fall of Jerusalem. See Matthew 24:23, 24. This later portion of the prophecy has also been fulfilled, at least in part. In recent times we have had Jim Jones and the Jonestown massacre. Going back a little, we recall Adolf Hitler, whom millions of educated Westerners devoutly believed at one time would usher in a thousand years of peace. In the nineteenth century, Napoleon led vastly more followers to their deaths than Jim Jones did. And there was Father Divine, who claimed to be God in Philadelphia; and the Shaker leader, Mother Ann Lee, who taught that she was Christ incarnate in a woman. The list goes on. Karl Marx was a false christ too, of sorts.
The manner of Christ’s return. We come back now to the manner of Christ’s return.
Some informants, Jesus warned, would claim, “He is in the wilderness,” or, “He is in the inner rooms.” “Do not believe it!” He urged. “Lo, I have told you beforehand.” YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED. Verses 25, 26.
Will Jesus return privately? No, He says, He will not.
Will He return secretly? No, He will not.
How, then, will He come? “As the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of man.” “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.” Verses 27, 30, 31.
It was to preserve His precious followers from disappointment and disaster that Jesus made so much about the manner of His coming. Evidently any teacher who says that Christ will come in any way other than on the clouds of heaven is a false teacher.
The Holy Spirit impressed Paul to provide a description of the “coming of the Lord” that is similar to Christ’s own description of it. “The Lord himself,” Paul said, “will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And 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; and so we shall always be with the Lord.” 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17.
Two words in Paul’s passage have become famous in Christian circles. One of them is parousia, the Greek word translated “coming.” Parousia was used in ancient times to refer to the state visits of important personages. I had the privilege of reading this word once on a broken piece of pottery, or potsherd, that recorded the arrival of an official at a certain ancient Egyptian community. Parousia is used in Matthew 24:3 and in several other places in the New Testament to refer to the return of Jesus.
The other famous word used in some translations of 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 is rapture. It is derived from the Latin word rapiemur, which in the Latin Vulgate is used where “caught up” occurs in the Revised Standard Version. To “rapture” means to “catch up” or “carry away.” In modem English the word has a pleasant connotation. We talk about being carried away—or raptured—with happy emotions. In ancient times rapture was a workaday term for “stealing” something or for “rescuing” somebody.
At His parousia (or second coming) Jesus will rapture (or rescue) His own people. And what will the circumstances be? A cry of command, the archangel’s call, the piercing blast of a trumpet, our Lord on the clouds.
Any “christ” who comes, or who claims to come, in any other manner than this, is a false christ. And apparently any teacher who says that Christ will come in any other manner is a false teacher.
Christ’s warning is urgent. In the Olivet Discourse Jesus made it plain that rejection of false teachers is more important than the possession of timetables.
“I have told you beforehand.” Verse 25. Let no one deceive you. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
The other true signs. If the precise manner of His return is a “sign,” Jesus also gave a few other signs of His return. In Matthew 24:29, 30, He said, “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.” His words are recorded in Luke 21:25-27 this way, “There will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and upon the earth distress of nations in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, men fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”
In Matthew 24:33, Jesus said, “So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates.” And in Luke 21:28, “When these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Many Christians believe that these signs in sun, moon, and stars have already been fulfilled. So thrilling a possibility deserves our careful attention. The evidence is discussed on pages 193-202.
Also among the “all things” that Jesus said we would see as His second coming approached was one more very impressive and significant sign. “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.” Matthew 24:14, K.J.V. After we have paid attention to other important matters, we’ll discuss this prominent promise on pages 44-46.
II. The Abomination That Makes Desolate
When the disciples asked Jesus, “Tell us, when will this be?” they had in mind the destruction of Jerusalem as well as the second coming. We have noted this several times.
In His reply, Jesus referred to the “desolating sacrilege spoken of by the prophet Daniel,” Matthew 24:15. Because of the wide use made of the King James Version, the “desolating sacrilege” is generally know in English as the “abomination of desolation.” It will be our goal in the next few pages to study this “abomination” and the “desolation” that it produced. Seeing how fully Christ’s prophecies about the fall of Jerusalem were fulfilled around A.D. 70 enhances our confidence in the fulfillment of His prophecies for our day. This is important, for the abomination of desolation has an application to our day as well as to the fall of Jerusalem.
“When you see the desolating sacrilege spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains; let him who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house; and let him who is in the field not turn back to take his mantle. And alas for those who are with child and for those who give suck in those days! Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a sabbath.” Matthew 24:15-20 R.S.V.
Prelude to destruction. The fulfillment of this prediction makes for sad reading, but it presents a gripping illustration of the reliability of Bible prophecy.
Let’s go back a bit for perspective. The tiny nation of Judea, whose capital was Jerusalem, was incorporated into the Roman Empire when Pompey captured the city in 63 B.C. But whereas most conquered people developed pride in becoming part of the empire, many Jews in Judea and Galilee nourished a spirit of resistance and became noted for their militant opposition to Roman leadership.
The Romans usually, though not always, tried to rule Palestine peacefully. As time passed, however, one bloody incident led to another one still more bloody, until by the mid-60s the number of Palestinian Jews who might lose their lives in a single event is said to have reached 20,000. A climax occurred when the temple priests determined to offer no more sacrifices or prayers on behalf of the Roman emperor. In those days all ethnic groups in the empire offered sacrifices and prayers on behalf of the emperor. Most groups offered sacrifices and prayers to the emperor, as though he were a god.
The Jewish decision not to pray for the emperor was considered treason. Punishment was inescapable. Cestius Gallus, governor of the Roman province of Syria, in which Judea was included, marched south from Antioch with the equivalent of two legions of soldiers and numerous auxiliaries, (Auxiliaries resembled our militia. Legions were elite units of about six thousand.) When Cestius Gallus arrived at Jerusalem in October A.D. 66, he met fierce opposition. A guerrilla group attacked him suddenly and killed 515 Romans for a loss of only 22. But the very brilliance of their success caused the guerrillas to fear a severe reprisal, and they retreated uncertainly behind the stout walls of the temple complex.
Moderate Jews encouraged the Romans to take over the temple area at once and to suppress the rebels before they got their second wind. Cestius Gallus did make a move toward the temple. To restore temple prayers on behalf of the emperor was the reason he had come. Inexplicably, however, after an effort lasting less than a week and reaching the verge of success, Cestius Gallus withdrew from the city and headed back to Antioch. His decision was disastrous for his troops. Jewish resistance fighters manned the ridges above the northbound mountain road. With arrows, spears, and rocks, they succeeded in killing almost six thousand of the Romans.
Josephus, the historian, served as a Jewish general for a time during the ensuing war before he joined the Roman side. Looking back several years later, he regarded the governor’s unexplained retreat as a turning point. If Cestius Gallus had pressed his attack only a little more decisively, Josephus concluded, Roman peace would have been restored to Jerusalem with little loss to either life or property. Wrote Josephus, “Had he [Cestius Gallus] but persisted for a while with the siege [of the temple complex], he would have forthwith taken the city,” and there would have been no Jewish war and no destruction of the city!
Severely stung by the loss of their soldiers, however, the Romans determined to return. The Emperor Nero summoned from Britain his capable general Vespasian, who laid plans carefully with the help of his son Titus. (Both Vespasian and Titus later became emperors.) Together, father and son launched a campaign in which perhaps a quarter million Palestinian Jews were starved, burned, shot through with arrows, crucified, hacked, or enslaved to death.
Temple and city wiped out. When Titus, with four legions and a large force of auxiliaries, began his siege of Jerusalem in the spring of A.D. 70, Jerusalem was jammed with Jews who had gathered to celebrate Passover.
As the siege progressed, disease, filth, and famine took their grisly toll. Amid mounting panic, three gang-like organizations added to the horror by terrorizing their fellow Jews and competing viciously for control of the dwindling supplies. One starving mother ate her baby.
Titus tried to save the temple. It was an ornament of the empire. In various ways he also attempted to spare the city and its people. But the city leaders refused all terms, believing that God would even yet honor them as His people and preserve the temple as His house of worship.
Near the end of August, some of the Romans, infuriated at the seemingly incomprehensible fanaticism of the Jewish resistance, set fire to the gold-plated wood of the temple’s walls and ceiling. Modern Jews still memorialize the ensuing conflagration annually on the ninth of the Jewish month Ab. But even after the burning of the temple, the survivors adamantly refused to surrender, and Titus in exasperation turned his troops loose. City and temple disappeared, literally. Except for a small portion of the wall and three towers, “the city was so completely leveled to the ground,” says Josephus, “as to leave future visitors to the spot no ground for believing that it had ever been inhabited.”
Of the masses of people who had inhabited the city at the beginning of the siege, almost everyone appears to have died; except that at Jerusalem and during the preceding campaign in Galilee and Judea, 97,000 men, women, and children were taken prisoner. Many of the prisoners were sent to the provinces to face wild animals in amphitheaters. Many were compelled to dig the Corinthian canal in Greece. Many others were sent to Egypt to toil there to their death as slaves. Some were offered for sale as slaves to Gentiles living in Judea; they went for “a trifling sum per head, owing to the glut of the market and the dearth of purchasers.”
Prophecy fulfilled. The destruction of Jerusalem poignantly fulfilled Christ’s prediction of thirty-nine years earlier, “There will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down.” Matthew 24:2. So too were fulfilled His prophecies about famines, earthquakes, rumors of wars, and armies standing round the holy place.
The woman who ate her baby, the slaves who were sold for a pittance, and the captives who were shipped into Egypt fulfilled other prophecies made by Moses some fifteen hundred years earlier in Deuteronomy 28:15, 52, 53, 68, “If you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes which I command you this day, then ... they [your enemies] shall besiege you in all your towns.... and you shall eat the offspring of your own body... and the Lord will bring you back in ships to Egypt.... and there you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but no man will buy you.”
God cared. The fall of Jerusalem to the Romans reminds us of its fall centuries before to the Babylonians. In GC 1:19-25, we saw how very sadly God “gave up” Jerusalem to King Nebuchadnezzar and how He sent prophet after prophet to prevent the disaster if possible.
God did even more in New Testament times to spare the Jews in Jerusalem their awful disaster at the hands of the Romans. For over thirty years God’s own Son walked their roads and streets, pointing them to the way of peace. He taught them to forgive, to return good for evil, and to respect all legally constituted authority. When a Roman soldier, exercising his privileges, compelled a Jew to carry his heavy pack for a mile, Jesus counseled the Jew to carry the pack a second mile as well. See Matthew 5:41.
If all the Jews in Judea and Galilee had accepted Christ’s teachings, they wouldn’t have engaged in the banditry and sabotage that goaded Romans to retaliate. They wouldn’t have refused to pay their taxes. They wouldn’t have stopped praying for the emperor—the treasonable act that brought on the war. Neither would they have assumed that God was likely to work miracles for people who long had disobeyed Him unless they repented first. Nor would they have divided into furious factions, but would have generously sustained one another.
But not all Jews rejected Jesus. Thousands accepted Him. See Acts 2:41. They placed confidence not only in His religious instruction but also in His prophecies. They remembered His words, “When you see the desolating sacrilege spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place” that is, “when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies”“then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.” Matthew 24:15, 16; Luke 21:20.
The astonishing departure of Cestius Gallus in November A.D. 66, when victory was easily within his reach, provided a priceless opportunity for escape. Josephus reports that “many distinguished Jews” at that time “abandoned the city as swimmers desert a sinking ship.”
It appears that the Christian Jews left Jerusalem at this time. Moving north, they founded a colony at Pella, southeast of Lake Galilee. The words of Christ translated “flee to the mountains” in the Revised Standard Version can appropriately be rendered “flee to the hills” or “flee to a country place.” Pella is located in the country among rolling hills.
The Christian Jews did as Jesus counseled them because they trusted His prophecy. And not a single Christian Jew, mother, father, or child, is known to have died in the terrible death of Jerusalem.
III. The Abomination and the Christian Church
As we noted on page 24, where the Revised Standard Version in Matthew 24:15 speaks about the “desolating sacrilege,” the King James Version along with several other translations has the phrase, the “abomination of desolation.”
We have seen that Jesus was talking symbolically about the Roman armies that were to surround Jerusalem in the years 66 and 70. Compare Luke 21:20. But what He said deserves further attention. The “abomination of desolation” was to be much more than Roman armies.
Jesus showed that the abomination of desolation had been foretold “by the prophet Daniel.” This was true; for Daniel talking a different language, of course, but with exactly the same idea in mind spoke in Daniel 11:31 about the “abomination that makes desolate.” In Daniel 8:13 he called it the “transgression that makes desolate.” He predicted that it would cause the “sanctuary and host to trampled under foot.” Speaking of it in still another way in Daniel 9:24-27, Daniel talked about a desolator prince who would appear upon the wing of abominations to destroy the city of Jerusalem and the temple. See GC 1:216-219.
So the prophet Daniel, though he employed different words, had indeed spoken about the abomination of desolation.
Now, in the Old Testament King James Version, the word abomination is sometimes used for idol worship. See 2 Kings 23:13; Isaiah 44:19. The word transgression obviously refers to something sinful. And a sacrilege (Matthew 24:15, R.S.V.) is something irreverent. Thus the “abomination of desolation” and the “transgression of desolation” and the “desolating sacrilege” spoken of by the prophet Daniel and by Jesus were one and the same thing. Essentially, it was a sinful system of worship that would commit the sacrilege of trampling on and desolating God’s city, God’s sanctuary, and His people.
The Roman army that demolished Jerusalem was just such an idol-worshiping, desolating abomination. In place of flags, Roman soldiers carried standards. These were long poles with cross arms near the top from which each legion hung its characteristic symbols. (The “tenth Fretensis” and the “twelfth Fulminata” were among the legions that fought at Jerusalem.) Whereas modern soldiers salute their flags, the Romans at times worshiped their standards. The ancient writer Tertullian even asserted that “the camp religion of the Romans is all through a worship of the standards.”
After the Roman soldiers destroyed the Jerusalem temple, while the hot smoke was still rising from the ruins and the defeated Jews were still bleeding and cursing and dying on every side, the Romans “carried their standards into the temple court and,” says Josephus, “setting them up opposite the eastern gate, [they] there sacrificed to them.”
The Roman army that stood in the holy place and destroyed and desolated Jerusalem was intrinsically idolatrous. It was indeed an “abomination” and a “desecration” that produced “desolation.”
The abomination was “Rome.” Now, in Daniel 8:13 the phrase “transgression that makes desolate” is applied to that chapter’s symbolic “little horn.” In GC 1:159, 160, 190-192 we saw that some readers of the Bible have supposed that this little horn was Antiochus Epiphanes. We studied about that eccentric little king of Syria (175-164 B.C.), who interrupted the temple sacrifices between 168 and 165 B.C. We found that he really did not fit the numerous specifications of the little horn. And, of course, the fact that in Matthew 24:15 and Luke 21:20 Jesus identified the abomination of desolation with armies whose arrival at Jerusalem was still future in A.D. 31 proves beyond a doubt that it was not Antiochus Epiphanes.
What we found the little horn of Daniel 8 really represented was “Rome.” Both pagan and Christian Rome. Both the Roman Empire and the medieval Roman Church.
The prophecies of Daniel 2, 7, and 8 run parallel. See the chart on GC 1:250. Each prophecy starts in Daniel’s day and continues through real time to the end of the world. The various symbols for the Babylonian, Persian, and Greek Empires are followed in each chapter by a symbol for Rome: iron in Daniel 2, a monster in Daniel 7, and a little horn in Daniel 8. As we noted in GC 1:122-135, in these prophecies God chose on purpose to overlook the great good accomplished by the Roman Empire and by the Roman Church. He chose in each chapter to emphasize the negative, repressive aspects of Rome in order to teach important lessons.
We are now ready to ask, Did the little horn of Daniel 8that is, Did the “transgression that makes desolate” of Daniel 8:13—“trample” on God’s “sanctuary” and His “host” (or people)? The answer is Yes. In its pagan empire phase, Rome destroyed the Jerusalem temple, which had been God’s principal site of public worship for almost a thousand years. Everyone knows that the Roman Empire also persecuted people who believed in the true God. Rome in its Christian church phase also persecuted believers. Further, as we saw in GC 1:159-161, 172-178, medieval Christian teaching and behavior seriously obscured the “continual” (Hebrew tamid) ministry of Jesus in the heavenly sanctuary. In between Christ and His people, medieval Rome interposed a false priesthood, a false sacrifice, a false head of the church, and a false way of salvation. See GC 1:178. That the medieval church did perform badly has been frankly conceded by prominent Jesuit authors in the years since the second Vatican Council. See GC 1:174, 178.
Viewed from this standpoint, the “abomination of desolation” is seen to be a false system of worship, Rome in both pagan and Christian forms. Pagan Rome attacked God’s visible sanctuary, the Jerusalem temple, and persecuted true Christianity. Christian Rome also persecuted, and it opposed the invisible sanctuary where Jesus ministers on our behalf in heaven.
Apostasy and the man of lawlessness. To speak of the medieval Christian church as performing badly is to sound an alarm. How could Christians have behaved that way unless they first had apostatized or left the faith?
This very apostasy was predicted in the Olivet Discourse. Said Jesus, “Many will fall away.” Matthew 24:10. Some twenty-five years after the discourse, Paul referred to the same tragedy. Said he to the Christian leaders in Ephesus, “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples [the church members] after them.” Acts 20:29, 30.
“Let no one deceive you in any way,” said Paul to some new Christians in Thessalonica, who were longing for Christ to come. (His words were a clear echo of one of Christ’s warnings in Matthew 24.) “For that day will not come,” Paul continued, “unless the rebellion [Greek: apostasia, apostasy or falling away] comes first, and the man of lawlessness [“man of sin,” K.J.V.] is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God. Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you this?” 2 Thessalonians 2:3-5.
The “mystery of lawlessness” was already at work, Paul went on, referring to conditions in the middle of the first century. “Only,” Paul explained, “he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, and the Lord Jesus will slay him with the breath of his mouth and destroy him by his appearing and his coming.” 2 Thessalonians 2:7, 8.
Paul’s point was that the man of lawlessness would not be revealed until some time future to Paul’s day, but that once the man of lawlessness arrived, he would continue till the second coming.
It seems unkind, even un-Christian, to suggest that the Roman Church fulfilled this prophecy. But Paul was speaking about an “apostasy,” a “rebellion.” Apostasies and rebellions happen within the ranks, not outside them. In GC 1:131, 132 we saw that various popes and their admirers indeed made claims to God status for the papacy, even as recently as the 1890s, claims that have never been repudiated. In GC 1:134-143 we saw how, with the best intentions perhaps, the Roman Church opposed God’s law and has not changed its stand.
Leading Christians express concern. At the height of the Middle Ages, educated Christian leaders became deeply concerned about the church’s apostasy. At actual risk to their lives they expressed the disturbing conviction that the man of lawlessness, the abomination of desolation, had appeared in their own day. They concluded that the church—or its dogma, or at least its earthly leadership—was the “man of lawlessness” of 2 Thessalonians 2 and the “abomination” of Matthew 24.
Jan Milic (d. 1374) was one of these leaders. Secretary to Emperor Charles IV and archdeacon at the Cathedral of Prague, Milic turned down a promotion and resigned his position in order to gain time for preaching. On a pilgrimage to Rome he addressed a large assembly of clergy and scholars under the title, “Antichrist Has Come!” Imprisoned while in Rome he wrote a tract in which he said, “Where Christ speaks of the ‘abomination’ in the temple [Matthew 24:15], he invites us to look round and observe how, through the negligence of her pastors, the church lies desolate.”
John Wycliffe (d. 1384), the well known Catholic churchman, English statesman, and Oxford professor, saw the abomination of desolation in the doctrine of transubstantiation, imposed on people as it was by the bishops under threat of excommunication.
Sir John Oldcastle (d. 1417), also called Lord Cobham, deserves to be better known. After Wycliffe’s death, Sir John sponsored Oxford students in the study of the Bible and provided means for “Poor Preachers” or “Lollards” to teach the Bible all around the country. Archbishop Arundel of Canterbury got the King of England to rebuke him. Sir John replied that although he would obey the king in harmony with Romans 13, he could not obey an order of the church telling him to stop the preaching of the Bible. He knew by Scripture, he said, that the pope was the “Son of Perdition” (i.e., the man of lawlessness, 2 Thessalonians 2:3) and the “Abomination standing in the holy place.” Sir John was imprisoned but managed to escape. Recaptured four years later, he was sentenced to be barbecued, slowly, alive. He died singing praise.
John Huss (d. 1415), a Bohemian like Milic also identified the pope with the man of sin. “Huss” means “goose” in Bohemian, and he was aware that his goose might well get cooked. It did. On July 6, 1415, the bishops at the ecclesiastical Council of Constance had him burned alive.
Martin Luther (d. 1546) was a monk. His prayers deepened his spiritual concern. He came to see the church of his time as the “abomination...” of which Jesus speaks in Matthew 24:15 and as the man of lawlessness of 2 Thessalonians 2, who sits “in the temple of God (that means, in the midst of Christendom), showing himself that he is God.”
Tragically, the abomination of desolation that Jesus and Daniel spoke about was indeed both pagan and Christian Rome.
IV. Predicted Tribulation and You
Talking about the tragic deaths of Huss and Oldcastle reminds us that in the Olivet Discourse Jesus predicted that His followers would suffer tribulation. “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation, and put you to death; and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake.” Matthew 24:9.
It was not His only reference that evening to tribulation. In verses 21 and 22 He referred to a coming “great tribulation,” one unlike any tribulation before it or since, so severe that “if those days had not been shortened, no human being would be saved.”
Tribulation is translated from a Greek word meaning “trouble, distress, and suffering.” In addition to Christ’s references to it on the Mount of Olives, the Bible contains several other predictions about periods of notable distress. See the chart on page 35.
The first tribulation in the Olivet Discourse was to begin very soon, within the lifetimes of the disciples. “They will deliver you up to tribulation.” Jesus told them. And it was to continue more or less permanently. When Jesus added, “You will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake,” He was looking through history to the end of time, as the gospel would spread from one nation to another. Some people out of all the nations would accept the gospel and become His followers. Tragically, He knew that others of all the nations would not only reject Him but would also persecute those who accepted Him.
The other tribulation Jesus spoke of, one unlike any other before it or since (verses 21, 22), was fulfilled during the 1260 year-days of Daniel 7:25 (see GC 1:130, 131) as part of the awful pattern of trial, trouble, and distress that all too often marked the career of Roman Christianity. See the chart.
Yet another tribulation or “time of trouble,” also unlike any other before it or since, was foretold in Daniel 12:1, 2. It will take place when the “great prince,” Michael, “shall arise.” “At that time your people shall be delivered,” Gabriel said to Daniel, “every one whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust,” he added, “shall awake, some to everlasting life.”
This unique tribulation will occur in connection with the resurrection at the second coming. It will occur after the court of judgment described in Daniel 7:9-14 has finished examining the books. It will bring terror only to the wicked. God’s people will be delivered from it, “every one” of them.
This terrible trial at the end of time will be unlike any other in that, though relatively brief, it will involve the seven last plagues. The great tribulation of the 1260 year-days, however, was unlike any other in that it lasted for centuries. It affected both believers and unbelievers. At times it carried off as many as a fourth or even a third of the population.
We’ll have more to say about the different tribulations when we discuss Revelation 2:10; 3:10 and 6:9-11.
Tribulation and you. In the quiet of that evening on the Mount of Olives, Jesus said to the four disciples seated beside Him, “They will deliver you up to tribulation, and put you to death.”
Tribulation is painfully personal. Of those four faithful friends, James and Peter were later imprisoned in Jerusalem by King Herod at the request of Jewish leaders. See Acts 12:1-19. James was beheaded. Peter was rescued by an angelbut years later he was martyred in Rome, evidently crucified upside down. John, another member of the Olivet Four, was dipped into hot oil. See page 53. Surviving miraculously, he was exiled to the island of Patmos, where he saw the visions of Revelation.
But Jesus thought of other sufferers too. He knew that tribulation would not be limited to certain periods or to selected individuals. “In the world you have tribulation,” He said. John 16:33. His words constitute a universal axiom like, “In school you have teachers” or “In war you have death.” Tribulation is an inevitable aspect of human living. “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.” Job 5:7.
Being a Christian, however, helps a person avoid a good many kinds of trouble and mitigates a good many others. Choosing to live healthfully in order to glorify God (see 1 Corinthians 10:31) helps a Christian avoid many aches and pains. Being courteous helps defuse other people’s anger: “A soft answer turns away wrath.” Proverbs 15:1. Prayer, too, changes things: “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.” Psalm 50:15.
But some trouble is inescapable. “In the world you have tribulation.” The Christian Jews who left Jerusalem in harmony with Christ’s instruction were gloriously spared the carnage that came to their compatriots, but they were not spared the cost and inconvenience of moving to Pella and starting life over again there. See pages 27, 28. And Christian martyrs obviously suffer very severe tribulation.
But when Jesus said, “in the world you have tribulation,” He went on to say, “but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” John 16:33. Christ is in control, and He will have the last word about our trials!
“They will deliver you up to tribulation,” He said in Matthew 24:9. In fact, they will “put [some of you] to death.” But never mind! “Not a hair of your head will perish.” Luke 21:16-18.
Loving paradox! You will be killed, but not a cell in your body will be lost. “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” Psalm 116:15. At the second coming, the Christ who has already overcome the world will raise every one of His sleeping people back to life. See Matthew 24:31; 1 Thessalonians 4:15-18.
He cares about us. He wants us also to care—about other people. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction [Greek, “tribulation”], and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” James 1:27. The mature Christian tends to lose sight of his own problems by helping others with theirs. The Christian knows that everyone—single men and women, divorced people and widows, orphans and parented children, mothers, fathers, the elderly, administrators, and employees—all face trials. The true Christian finds ways to “visit” them “in their affliction.”
The true Christian also, after he catches his breath, “rejoices in suffering.” How so? By knowing that even during his trials he is precious to God. By knowing also that his personal problems provide an opportunity to demonstrate a patience under provocation that can persuade other people to become Christians too. See Romans 5:3; James 1:24. And as for other people’s trials, he rejoices in the opportunity they present for him to manifest Christian compassion.
“The things that are revealed belong to us and to our children.” Deuteronomy 29:29. Some kind of trouble bothers every family member at least some of the time. Happy is the family that learns how to share trials, and how to rejoice in them too.
V. Parables About Preparation
In the Olivet Discourse Jesus was not concerned about providing a detailed timetable of earth’s terminal tribulation. His primary purpose during much of Matthew 24 was to warn us against being deceived by false christs, false prophets, and false signs. See pages 20-22. His emphasis toward the end of Matthew 24 and in Matthew 25 was on our being ready for the second coming whenever it may occur.
Christians are to know when Christ’s return is “near.” Matthew 24:33. Jesus did not, however, specify the “day and hour” of His return. On the contrary, He indicated that His actual appearance will come as a surprise even to His most ardent followers.
“Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” Matthew 24:42.
“You also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” Matthew 24:44.
In the days of Noah, people engaged heedlessly in their daily rounds, “eating and drinking,” Jesus said, “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.” Matthew 24:38, 39.
Eating and getting married are not sins, but merely doing such things was not good enough in Noah’s day, and it isn’t good enough in ours. We must also “be ready,” for, like Noah’s flood, “so will be the coming of the Son of man.” Verse 37. People will be engaged in their ordinary daily tasks, working “in the field” or “grinding at the mill;” one will be “taken” and the other “left.” Verses 40, 41.
Noah and his three sons had wives, so we know they were married. They put food on board the ark, so we know they liked to eat. Building the vessel was their daily job. Insofar as they filled life’s ordinary rounds, they lived like everyone else. But in addition, they were “ready.” They were “taken” to safety, and all the other people alive at the time were “left” to be destroyed.
It isn’t wrong to have a family or hold a job or take a vacation or fill out income-tax forms. But as we perform these basic functions we must continually be ready.
To help us to be ready for His second coming, the Master Storyteller told four famous parables. The first concerned The Two Supervisors, one, “faithful and wise;” the other, plainly “wicked.” The faithful supervisor was fair and honest and made sure that the workers under him got their pay regularly. The wicked supervisor reasoned that since his boss had been delayed so long already, he would probably be delayed a lot longer yet. So he caroused with his pals and abused the other workers. Jesus said that when the owner returned, he would reward the faithful supervisor by promoting him to top management, but he would punish the wicked one by placing him with “hypocrites” in a situation where “men will weep and gnash their teeth.” Matthew 24:45-51.
The lesson of the story is that readiness for Christ’s arrival involves faithfulness in daily duties. One supervisor did his job dependably. The other wasted time and money and then got frustrated with the people where he worked.
Why was the second supervisor shut out of God’s kingdom? Evidently because God cares too much about our eternal happiness to let it be marred by despotic little playboys. Which probably also means that He doesn’t want to populate heaven with quarrelsome parents and stubborn spouses who waste endless hours at the TV and then fuss horribly with each other because the work isn’t done. Part of our preparation for eternity is learning (by God’s grace) to use our time wisely and to be pleasant with people.
Ten Sleepy Girls. Christ’s second parable about preparation was centered around a wedding. At a typical wedding in Bible times the groom traveled, perhaps by oxcart, to the home of the bride for one phase of the wedding; then he conveyed her to his own home for the wedding feast. Unmarried girls, mostly in their early teens, waited outside the bride’s home to welcome the groom and share the joy. For night ceremonies, the girls equipped themselves with olive-oil lamps.
I have observed a similar custom as still practiced today in villages of the Middle East. The lamps used there today are up to date, but I happen to own a lamp that dates from Bible times. I have found that it bums for as long as six hours on a filling and that walking with it doesn’t blow out the flame.
In Christ’s story, ten young women gathered outside a bride’s home one night to wait for the groom. Assuming that everything would come off as scheduled, five “foolish” girls didn’t bother to take along an extra little jar of oil. The five “wise” girls, however, recognized frankly that their friend the groom might not meet his big appointment on time. They well knew that custom expected them to bring lights to help illuminate the evening’s entire outdoor and indoor festivities. So each of these “wise” girls carried an extra supply of fuel.
The groom was delayed; and while the ten sleepy girls napped, their lights nearly burned out. When they woke up at midnight to hear the groom’s oxcart rounding the bend, the wise girls quickly refueled their lamps. The foolish ones, however, begged their friends to share with them. But even the wise girls had only enough oil to keep their own lamps alight during the parade and the feast. While the foolish ones dashed off to arouse the village oil-merchant, the bridegroom arrived. “Those who were ready” went in with him to the marriage festivity, and “the door was shut.” “Watch therefore,” Jesus concluded, “for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Matthew 25:1-13.
The point of this story is that in order to be ready for the second coming we must be ready individually. It isn’t good enough if only our husband or wife or mother is ready. It isn’t good enough just to belong to a church, even if everyone in the church talks a lot about the second coming. All of the sleepy girls believed the bridegroom was coming, and all of them made some son of preparation. But the only ones who were truly ready were the ones whose individual preparation was adequate.
We may assume that little children will enter the kingdom of heaven on the strength of their parents’ faith. Referring to the children of His followers, Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 19:14. But as our children grow up, we need to make certain that they grow in Christ and develop their own spirituality. As soon as possible, they should be taught to read the Bible and pray by themselves as well as at family worship. Then by the time they are on their own, they will have their own extra oil for their lamps.
Parable of the Talents. Christ’s third story introduced a word into the English language. Today talent means the ability to do something special. In Bible times, a talent was originally a weight of about 34 kilograms, or 75 pounds. Later, it was the value of this weight in silver, bronze, or gold. In Christ’s day a talent was a huge sum of money, equivalent perhaps to the wages of an ordinary laborer for fifteen years.
In this third parable about preparation, a “man going on a journey” entrusted five talents to one of his servants, two talents to another servant, and one talent to a third. Then he went his way. While he was gone, the man with the five talents made use of his enormous wealth to double his capital. The man with two talents also doubled his capital. But the man with the single talent groused about how unjust his employer had been to give him so much less than he gave the others. He figured that anything he might earn with the money would go unappreciated by such a boss, and in a burst of ill-humor and self-pity he dug a hole for the talent and buried it.
When the master returned “after a long time,” the first two servants gave their reports cheerfully and were warmly commended. “Well done, good and faithful servant,” said the master to each one; “you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.”
The third servant, however, handed his single talent back to the master in very bad grace and heard himself described in return as a “wicked and slothful” person. Like the wicked supervisor in the first story, he too was banished to a place where “men will weep and gnash their teeth.” Matthew 25:14-30.
The point of this story is similar to the lesson of the first one: While waiting for the Lord to come from heaven, be faithful on the earth! Don’t just dream of pie in the sky, but do the job that waits nearby.
But this third parable has its own characteristic significance. The master gave every servant a responsibility. There’s an implied promise here that any of us can double what God starts us with. There’s positive indication, too, that it’s not what our talents are but what we do with them that counts. The faithful two-talent man received the same reward as the faithful five-talent man.
God’s kingdom will not be peopled by lazy grumblers who give their employers never an ounce of effort more than they get paid for. Picturesquely, Paul exhorts us to labor “not with eye service, as men-pleasers, but in singleness of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever your task” is, he goes on, “work heartily, as serving the Lord and not men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you are serving the Lord Christ.” Colossians 3:22-24.
Our daily job may be making cars or houses or books or meals, but the way we go about making them is making us. There’s more character than wood in a well built house. There’s more Christianity than flour in a sweet-smelling loaf of bread, baked with dedication for the health of our family.
If we want our children ready for the Lord’s appearing, we’ll encourage in them habits of industry. By stages appropriate to their ages, we’ll lead them to put away their toys, make their beds, help with the dishes, mow the lawn, and paint the house. They’ll probably be slow at first and awfully awkward, but they can be trained to work “heartily, as serving the Lord.” As they pull blankets into place each morning, they’ll be making more than beds. As they prepare meals on time, they’ll be getting more ready than food.
If it isn’t the number of talents that makes the difference, the man with one talent would have received the same reward as the men with two and five talents if, like them, he had doubled what he received. No doubt this is so; and every one of us has at least one talent. A person in a wheelchair thinks that we have a talent who are able to walk! A person without eyes thinks we have a talent who can see. Health, time, influence, the power of speech, even a shaky checking account, are all talents in some sense. God wants us to use them all faithfully for Him, in the service of others. I once read of a completely paralyzed Christian who found that his one talent was to pray. And pray he did, for foreign missions. As word about him spread, many thousands of dollars were contributed to mission societies in his name. If you can read this book, you have more talents than he had!
Anything we have is something we can use faithfully for Christ and for the good of others. In the process of so using it, we are preparing ourselves by His grace for His return.
Separating the Sheep From the Goats. Christ’s fourth parable about preparation may be the best known of all His parables. In it, the Son of man arrives in His glory attended by all the angels. Seated on His throne, He gathers all people in front of Him and separates them as Middle East villagers still separate the sheep from the goats. In the story the sheep are assigned to His right side, the goats to His left.
“The King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, 0 blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’”
The righteous people are astonished at His praise and ask when they did Him such unheard of kindnesses. The King replies, “‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’”
Then, as we all know, the King turns to the “goats” and orders them to leave Him, because when they saw Him needy and hungry an in prison, they did not help Him. Matthew 25:31-46.
The obvious moral of this final story is that our entrance into the kingdom of heaven depends on what kind of neighbors we will make there. And the test is, What kind of neighbors have we been here?
“If any one says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar.” 1 John 4:20. This verse was indelibly impressed on my mind when I was a child. My two brothers and I often engaged in what is politely known as sibling rivalry. Mother tried everything she knew to stop us. We were going at each other very unpleasantly one day when—for the hundredth time—she tried again. A little window in the wall of the room faced east. Mother asked, “How would you boys feel if, in the middle of a quarrel, you looked up and saw the cloud approaching with Jesus on it?” She had our attention. Then she quoted from 1 John 4:20, K.J.V., “He that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?”
Mother long ago went to her rest; but each of us brothers, older today than she was then, recalls the moment vividly.
She was right, wasn’t she? And so was the Bible! We cannot show our love for God except by showing it to people. Even the tithes we put into the offering at church are not sent by rocket to the throne of God; they are spent on human beings here on earth. We show our love to God by treating His children well, whatever their race, economic status, condition of health, or relative goodness or badness.
Christ’s four parables about preparation teach us that the way to be ready for the kingdom of heaven is to be faithful on earth! We should use our talents, many or few, to the best of our ability in serving others. We should treat people of all kinds as if they were Christ. And we should maintain individually a spiritual walk with God.
Especially happy will be whole families who prepare this way together.
Further Interesting Reading
In Arthur S. Maxwell, The Bible Story, volume 8:
“Jesus Unveils the Future,” page 155.
“Radio and Television Foreseen,” page 174.
“Ten Sleepy Girls,” page 178.
In Bible Readings for the Home:
“Our Lord’s Great Prophecy,” page 228.
In Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages:
“On the Mount of Olives,” page 627.
“The Least of These My Brethren,” page 637.
Page numbers for each book refer to the large, fully illustrated edition.
Your Questions Answered
1. Did the Christians have to flee on Sabbath or in the winter? In Matthew 24:20 Jesus advised His followers to pray that their flight from Jerusalem would not have to take place on a Sabbath or in the winter. Their prayers were answered. Cestius Gallus retired from Jerusalem in November, A.D. 66 (see pages 27, 28), a month when the weather is not usually severe in that part of the world. The Christians did not need to flee in winter.
Christ’s concern about the Sabbath is instructive. It indicates that He knew the Sabbath would still be in existence in A.D. 66, more than thirty years after His death. Jesus did not do away with the Ten Commandments. Said He in the Sermon on the Mount, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” Matthew 5:17, 18.
2. What did Jesus mean by “this generation will not pass away?” After giving His short list of second-coming signs, Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away till all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Matthew 24:34, 35.
Jesus intended this statement to be taken seriously. Only three times during His recorded ministry did He refer to the passing away of heaven and earth. On two of these He did so to emphasize, by contrast, the enduring quality of the Ten Commandments. See Question 1, above, and Luke 16:17. The third occasion was here, in Matthew 24, when He did so to emphasize the reliability of His prediction about “this generation.”
Almost numberless are the interpretations which commentators have attached to the term. They may perhaps be sorted into two basic understandings: (1) that a generation is a period of time, and (2) that a generation is a kind of people.
Generation as a period of time. Under the first understanding, Jesus’ words in Matthew 24:34 are taken to mean that the period of time left after the appearance of the signs would be so short that people who saw them would live to see Jesus actually arrive. Similarly, a prediction that He made in Matthew 23:36 about “this generation” and the fall of Jerusalem is interpreted to mean that the period between the prediction and its fulfillment would be short enough that people alive when Jesus spoke would experience the dreadful event.
Generation as a kind of people. Surprising as it may seem, there are several Bible instances in which a generation is a kind of people. The Bible speaks, for example, of “the generation of those who seek him” (Psalm 24:6) and “the generation of the upright” (Psalm 112:2). Each of these generations is a kind of good people. On the other hand, in Luke 16:8 Jesus observed that sinners are more shrewd than saints are in dealing with “their own generation, that is, with their own sinful kind of people. Elsewhere Jesus talked about an “evil and adulterous generation” (Matthew 12:39), a “generation” that wouldn’t repent (Matthew 12:41), and a “generation” that refused to listen to Him (Matthew 12:42).
Conclusion. Of these two views, the second seems more probable. On further thought, it also seems more understandable. Only thirty-nine years passed between Christ’s prediction in A.D. 31 and the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70; nonetheless, granted the shortness of life expectancy in those days, very few responsible adults who heard His prophecy can have lived to see its fulfillment. Even more difficult is locating anybody still alive who observed the astronomical second-coming signs that occurred during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. See Revelation 6 and 7.
It is better to say that in Matthew 23:36 and in Matthew 24:34, 35, Jesus used “this generation” to denote the kind of people who resist God and reject His message. It is senseless to hope that the world will get better as time passes, for most people will continue to be rebellious against God until the second coming. The rebellious kind of people will continue till the end. See 2 Timothy 3:1-9; Revelation 16:9.
A specific possibility is that Jesus may have been referring to the Jewish people, of whose race or “generation” He was Himself a member. If so, He meant that the Jewish race, largely unchanged in its attitude toward Him, would continue till the end of time in spite of every form of disaster, in spite even of the fall of Jerusalem, medieval pogroms, and the Nazi Holocaust. The continuance of the Jewish people as a distinct race—or “generation” is indeed one of the notable phenomena of human history.
3. Will Jesus come tonight? Gospel singers often ask, “Would your heart be right, if He came tonight?”
Jesus said in Matthew 24:14, “This gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nations; and then the end will come.” Before we talk about Christ’s coming back tonight, we ought to ask, “By tonight, will the gospel have been preached to all nations?” And before we answer this question, we need to ask what Jesus meant by the term, “all nations.”
North Americans often think of a nation as something like Canada, the United States, or Mexico, a sociopolitical entity with international borders and a central government. We may forget that within, say, the United States, there are tribes of Navajo, Pueblo, Modoc, Mohave, Klamath, and other native Americans, and that the dictionary indicates that all of these tribes are nations! In Europe, Yugoslavia is made up of several ethnic groups, each of which considers itself a nation. And so on.
More important, in New Testament times the Greek word for “nations” in the manuscripts of Matthew 24:14 is ethne (from which our ethnic is derived). Ethne in Christ’s day meant “nations” but it also meant “peoples,” “companies of people,” “classes,” “castes,” and “tribes.” Indeed, it often meant simply “foreigners” and in the New Testament is translated more than ninety times by the familiar word Gentiles. See, for example, Acts 10:45 and Ephesians 2:11.
To help us intelligently grasp the scope of the Christian’s missionary challenge, the Missions Advanced Research and Communication Center (MARC) in southern California has sensibly defined nations (ethne) as “peoples” groups of various sizes sufficiently distinguished from all other peoples by race, language, economics, occupation, or social class as to present distinct and separate challenges to evangelism. In various annual issues of its Unreached Peoples Directory, MARC has listed many thousands of such distinct peoples and has shown that a very large number of them are still waiting to hear the gospel of the kingdom of Christ. For example, it speaks of 3,000 distinct peoples in India alone, separated from one another by language, caste, religion, or culture. Fewer than 100 of these 3,000 peoples have significant numbers of Christians among them.
How can they all be reached? With so many peoples yet unreached, how can we hope that Jesus will come back soon? Mass media and satellites can help, but they aren’t likely to carry the gospel quickly to earth’s 5,390 languages and dialects. In thousands of these languages and dialects there aren’t yet any Christians to make a Christian use of the media. Besides, most people would rather “see a sermon than hear one any day.”
Among the professed followers of Christ, there should be a new commitment to world evangelism. If Americans, let us say, really wanted Christ to come soon, would they continue to spend six times as much on their pets as they do on missionaries? Would they spend their evenings cheering football and downing beer?
First-world Christians can give generously of their means. They can volunteer to serve overseas as lay missionaries for several weeks or months, Christian craftsmen and teachers often being more welcome than ministers. Christian families—yours, for instance—can choose a particular area or tribe, find out all about it at the library, and pray together for its evangelization.
Meanwhile third-world Christians are reaching successfully into neighboring non-Christian peoples. To me, Billiat Sapa symbolizes the marvelous dedication of such native missionaries. Sapa was a black African and a college graduate. He and his wife agreed to pioneer for Christ in a rice-growing valley in Malawi. When the non-Christian inhabitants refused to let them live in any of their villages, he and his family lived on a platform in a tree. The rainy season swamped the rice paddies. One of the Sapas’ children sickened with malaria and died. But the parents didn’t turn back. Their other child died, but they didn’t turn back. Sapa’s wife died, but he still refused to leave. Finally the villagers became convinced that Sapa truly loved them-and that the God he loved, loved them. They let him establish several Christian schools among them.
With more Christians like Billiat Sapa and with a Lord like our Christ, the gospel commission can soon be fulfilled! “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord.” Zechariah 4:6. The Holy Spirit, falling at Pentecost on 120 praying, repentant, and obedient Christians, helped them win 3,000 converts in a single day. See Acts 2:1-41. What will happen in our day when thousands of faithful, obedient, repentant Christians worldwide open their hearts fully to receive God’s Spirit? See Joel 2:28, 29.
Jesus Christ may not be coming tonight, but we can confidently believe that He’s coming soon.
1. Josephus, The Jewish War, 3.63. Text and trans. in H. St. J. Thackeray, Ralph Marcus, and Louis H. Feldman, Josephus: With an English Translation, 9 vols., Loeb Classical Library (London: William Heinemann, 1956-1965), 2:594, 595.
2. Josephus, War, 2.252-265; Loeb 2:420-427.
3. Josephus, War, 2.409; Loeb 2:482, 483.
4. Josephus, War, 2.539; Loeb 2:531. Compare Josephus, War, 2.531, 532; Loeb 2:528, 529.
5. Josephus, War, 6.420-427; Loeb 3:496-499. Josephus gives the city’s population at the time as 1,200,000. Modem scholars divide his calculations by a factor of three, four, or even ten. See, e.g., Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1969), pp. 77-84.
6. Josephus, War, 6.193-213; Loeb 3:434-437.
7. Josephus, War, 7.3; Loeb 3:504, 505. Three towers were left standing to illustrate the onetime strength of the city’s defenses, and a portion of the west wall was retained to shield the Roman garrison assigned to guard the ruins. The rest of the city and all of the temple were razed.
8. Josephus, War, 6.384; Loeb 3:486, 487.
9. Josephus, War, 2.556; Loeb 2:536, 537.
10. Josephus, War, 7.17, 18; Loeb 3:508-511.
11. Tertullian, Apology, 16; ANF 3:31.
12. Josephus, War, 6.316; Loeb 3:468, 469.
13. LeRoy Edwin Froom, The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, 4 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Assn., 1946-1954), 2:31-39.
14. Ibid., p. 58.
15. Ibid., pp. 87, 88, 91.
16. Ibid., pp. 116-121.
17. Ibid., pp. 277, 278.
18. For one discussion of panta ta ethne in Matthew see John P. Meier, “Nations or Gentiles in Matthew 28:19,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 39 (1977):94-102, responding to an article by D. Hare and D. Harrington in the same journal 37 (1975):359-396. Meier prefers “nations” or “peoples” to any translation that might seem to exclude Jews.
19. Unreached Peoples Directory (Monrovia, Calif.: Missions Advanced Research and Communication Center, 1974). C. Peter Wagner and Edward R. Dayton, eds., Unreached Peoples ‘79 (Elgin, Ill.: David C. Cook Publishing Co., 1978).
20. George Samuel, “Unreached Peoples: An Indian Perspective,” in Wagner and Dayton, Unreached Peoples, p. 82.
21. Ralph D. Winter, “Penetrating the New Frontiers,” in Wagner and Dayton, Unreached Peoples, p. 73.
22. S. G. Maxwell, I Loved Africa (n.p.: The author, 1975), pp. 150-156.
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