When is Jesus coming back? Matthew 24:1-3, 36-51

I spotted an article in the Christian press the other day. “Pastor thinks that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a sign that Jesus is coming back soon.” The world is certainly becoming more and more troubled. Covid19 has caused two years of suffering and death and the pandemic is not ended yet. Then the effects of the lockdowns on economies, the backlog of necessary medical treatments for other diseases and the effects of long Covid will affect all our lives for years to come even, if the world is spared the rise of another dangerous variant. The United Kingdom is facing inflation at the highest level for many years. And now we have the invasion of Ukraine. Nations around the world are waging an economic war on Russia with sanctions which will impact every country as well as our own lives in terms of rising costs of energy, food and raw materials. President Putin of Russia has even implied that he is prepared to use nuclear weapons. The risk of nuclear war could be greater now than it has been since the 1960s. No wonder some people are saying that we are in the Last Days and the end of the world is near. But when is Jesus going to return? We turn this morning to what Jesus foretold in Matthew chapter 24.
Matthew 24:1 Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. 2 ‘Do you see all these things?’ he asked. ‘Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.’
Matthew 24 begins with Jesus warning his disciples about the destruction of the Temple. This prophecy was fulfilled 37 years later when Romans soldiers led by the future emperor Titus laid siege to Jerusalem in the first Jewish-Roman war. In 70 AD the Romans destroyed the temple and laid waste to the whole city of Jerusalem. Jesus’s disciples understandably wanted to know more about the events which were to come.
3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. ‘Tell us,’ they said, ‘when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’
If we want to understand Matthew chapter 24 correctly we need to note that the disciples asked two separate questions here and Jesus gave them two separate answers.
‘Tell us,’ they said, ‘when will this happen?’ That was a question about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Jesus’s answer to that first question is recorded from verse 4 to verse 35, which we did not read. Then the disciples asked, ‘what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’ Jesus answered that second question about his return from verse 36 to verse 51. That passage was our reading this morning and we will return to it in a few minutes. But first question first.
Some preachers are pointing to familiar passages in Matthew 24 as proof that Jesus is coming soon.
Matthew 24 6 You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 7 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are the beginning of birth-pains.
Jesus goes on to warn of other terrible events. Times of fierce persecution for Christians, in which some will abandon their faith. False prophets will deceive many people.
21 For then there will be great distress, unequalled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equalled again.
Many Christians compare these prophecies with the terrible events unfolding in different parts of the world today and conclude that Jesus is coming soon. This morning I want to absolutely agree with the idea that we are in the Last Days. And I want us all to be very conscious that Jesus is indeed returning soon, maybe even today! But then I want respectfully to disagree with people who are saying that Jesus’s prophecies in the first half of Matthew 24 are being fulfilled today. We are indeed seeing wars and rumours of wars, and nations rising up against nations. We are seeing false prophets and false Messiahs deceiving people. There are famines and earthquakes and we are in times of great distress. These kinds of things have always been happening since Jesus was crucified and will do until the glorious day when Jesus returns. But all of these prophesies come in the first part of Matthew 24 where Jesus is talking about events which will happen BEFORE the destruction of the temple. Although such things will keep on happening throughout the Last Days, when we look at the context it is clear that they are part of Jesus’s answer to the first question, when will the destruction of the Temple happen? Jesus does NOT say that these will be signs that he is about to return. The reason I am confident that this is the case comes in verse 34.
Jesus says, 34 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.
Jesus is saying that all of the predictions he has made up to then which we find in chapter 35 up to verse 34 will be fulfilled within that generation, that is within the lifetimes of people alive then and even of some of the people listening to him. Everything Jesus says up to verse 34 are the signs leading up to the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple in 70 AD.
Which leads us on to Matthew 24 verse 35 and the answer to the second question the disciples asked, ‘what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’ To that question about him returning, Jesus says this.
36 ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
This verse clearly marks the change to the second answer. “But about THAT day”, the day of Jesus coming and of the end of the age. Jesus is very clear – no one knows.
No one knows. Not the angels. Not even the Son of God, Jesus himself. Nobody knows. And nobody ever will know in advance. This is why I have laboured the point about the two questions. Because as far as when Jesus is coming back, no one knows and nobody can know. Some people look for signs, wars and rumours of wars, nations against nations, earthquakes and famine, false prophets and days of unequalled distress. But Jesus said all of these were events leading up to the destruction of the temple – they had already been fulfilled by 70 AD. As far as when Jesus is coming back, nobody knows when. Except that it will be unexpected.
37 As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; 39 and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.
God’s judgment in the flood took the whole world, apart from Noah and his family, completely by surprise. Life was going on completely normally. Nobody was expecting that day and the return of Jesus will be the same. This goes against any idea that Christians can in any way work out when Jesus is going to return and be especially prepared for it. No one knows!
Next Jesus uses two images which have caused considerable confusion and even division in the church through the ages.
40 Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.
These two verses (together with one more verse in 1 Thessalonians 4) have led some Christians to believe in an event they have called the Rapture. This is the idea that one day God will suddenly remove all the Christians from the world leaving everybody else behind. Those “left behind” will either face God’s immediate judgment, or they will then carry on living a life in a world without God and without a Christian witness, some would say for another thousand years. If you want to look it up, these ideas belongs to an interpretation of future events labelled “Premillennial Dispensationalism.” This view has become popular since the 1990s due to the “Left Behind” series of 16 bestsellers by Tim LaHaye and four films. Can I stress I am NOT recommending those books and films – they are pure fiction.
I don’t believe that the idea of ‘the Rapture’ is a correct or even a possible interpretation of those verses. The ideas of the Rapture and of Premillennial Dispensationalism only appeared around 200 years ago in the teaching of J.N. Darby and the Exclusive Brethren. Looking at Matthew 24, it is completely ambiguous whether the man in the field and the women in the mill who are taken away are Christians being saved. They could equally be people being taken away to face judgment. The better interpretation is that these are not prophecies of a specific event of ‘the rapture’ at all. Instead, Jesus is just using vivid pictures to make the point that his return will be sudden and completely unexpected. And Jesus goes on to another picture.
42 ‘Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into.
Jesus will return “like a thief in the night.” This saying was so striking that it became central in the expectations of the Early Church about the return of Christ.
Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:1 Now, brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, 2 for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.
Peter in 2 Peter 3:10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.
The Book of Revelation 16:15 “Behold, I come like a thief! Blessed is he who stays awake and keeps his clothes with him, so that he may not go naked and be shamefully exposed.”
Revelation 3:3 Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.
When will Jesus return? You will not know! No one knows and nobody can know.
Jesus himself said in Matthew 24 44 So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.
We cannot work out when Jesus is about to return so that we can be especially ready for him. All Christians need to be in a permanent and perpetual state of readiness, because Jesus will return at the hour we are not expecting him, perhaps at the hour we are least expecting him. The chapter ends with another parable which is a solemn warning for us all.
Matthew 24 45 ‘Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? 46 It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. 47 Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. 48 But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, “My master is staying away a long time,” 49 and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. 50 The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. 51 He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
We must all be in a state of constant readiness for Jesus to return, diligently carrying out the tasks he has given us to do, worship and prayer and service and witness. We must be faithful and wise servants.
Jesus is coming back. We will never know when. But tThe day of his return is sooner now than ever before. Billy Graham said this about the Return of Jesus. “Our world is filled with fear, hate, lust, greed, war and utter despair. Surely the Second Coming of Christ is the only hope of replacing these depressing features with trust, love, universal peace and prosperity. FOR THAT DAY the world wittingly or inadvertently waits.”
So here is some good news and some bad news. The good news is that Jesus is coming back. And the bad news is that Jesus is coming back. The day of the Lord will be good news for some and bad news for others. It will all depend on whether we are ready. No one knows the day or the hour. Jesus was saying, “The son of man will come like a thief in the night at the hour you least expect Him. Don’t let my return sneak up on you!” This is the one absolutely certain future event. Jesus is going to return like a thief in the night! Are you ready for Jesus to come back today?
Hands up if you think Jesus will be coming back today? The Son of man will come like a thief in the night, at the hour you least expect him!

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