Relevant Verses: Matthew 24-25
Leading Question: According to Matthew 24 and 25, does an increase in the number of wars or the number of earthquakes tell us that Jesus’ return is nearer?
Adventists have always had a strong interest in the “soon” return of Jesus and over the years, many have referred to the “signs” of Matthew 24 as an indication that Jesus’ coming was soon. But my mentor during my undergraduate years, J. Paul Grove, almost earned the “heretic” badge by declaring with some firmness that Matthew 24-25 doesn’t tell us how long before Jesus comes. All it tells us is we must always be ready! The article at the end of this lesson, “Living in the End Time,” expands on that theme.
Question: How can we demonstrate from Scripture that passages of Scripture can have more than one application? More than one meaning?
The idea that a passage of Scripture can have more than one “true” interpretation has often by resisted by devout conservatives as well as by sophisticated liberals. But three passages from Matthew 24-25 seem to point quite clearly to the possibility of “multiple applications,” all of which have some bearing on “end time” preparation.
1. “Abomination of Desolation.” In Matthew 24:15 Jesus refers to a future time when the “abomination of desolation” will stand in the holy place. Here is crucial passage:
“So when you see the desolating sacrilege standing in the holy place, as was spoken of by the prophet Daniel (let the reader understand). . . . (NRSV).
Three passages in Daniel (9:27, 11:31, 12:11) provide the antecedents for the “desolating sacrilege” (NRSV) or “abomination of desolation” (KJV) of Matthew 24:15. In Daniel, preterist scholars generally apply the phrase to Antiochus Epiphanes’ desecration of the Jerusalem temple in 168-167 BCE. Matthew 24:15 is widely seen referring to the desecration of the Jerusalem temple by the Romans in 70 CE.
What is significant for prophetic interpretation is the recognition that Matthew points to an event that is still future, thus disqualifying a thorough-going preterist view of Matthew 24:15. Support for the idea of multiple applications can also be found in surprising places – for example, in Mervyn Maxwell’s devotional commentary on Daniel, God Cares, vol. 1. In his notes on Daniel 11, Maxwell openly states that the seeing Antiochus Epiphanes as the one who made the sanctuary desolate was “the most popular” interpretation in Jesus’ day. “Josephus, the famous Jewish historian, held this interpretation in the first century A.D. It is possible that Christ’s disciples did also.” A few paragraphs later, in connection with Jesus’ statement that the desolating sacrilege was still future, Maxwell makes this striking assertion: “In other words, old interpretations are bound to be inadequate. Only interpretations made in relatively recent years have any chance of getting the real issues straight”(Mervyn Maxwell, God Cares, vol. 1: The Message of Daniel for You and Your Family [Mt. View, CA: Pacific Press, 1981], 269, 270). Along similar lines is his comment on p. 282: “In spite of its shortcomings, the Antiochus Epiphanes interpretation bore such an apparent relationship to the career of the little king that it seems to have been believed by many Jews in the time of Christ. As we noted on page 269 it is possible that even the disciples believed it. If so, they were startled when – sitting with Jesus on the Mount of Olives overlooking the Jerusalem temple on a cool spring night shortly before the crucifixion – they heard Jesus invite them to ‘understand’ that the ‘abomination that makes desolate’ was still in the future.”
2. Sun, moon, and stars. In the classic historicism of 19th century Adventism, the “signs” were seen as one-time events in the course of history: the Lisbon earthquake (1755), Dark Day (1780), the Falling of the Stars (1833). But the heavenly signs were always seen by Old Testament prophets as forerunners of the “Day of the Lord.” And that Day was always a local event which then became a type of the final “Day of the Lord.” These signs are cited in Isaiah (13:10; 24:23), Jeremiah (15:9), Ezekiel (32:7), Joel (2:10, 31; 3:15), Amos (8:9-10); and Habakkuk (3:10-11).
Of particular interest is the reference in Joel 2, cited by Peter in Acts 2:16-21 with reference to the events surrounding Jesus’ last days and resurrection. In Revelation 6:12-17, these cosmic signs are re-applied to the second coming, though Uriah Smith does not see the “re- application” because he is too closely tied to traditional historicism.
3. The Ten Virgins. The re-application of the story of the ten virgins (Matt. 25:1-13) is an in- house Adventist phenomenon, but still illustrates how the process of re-application works. In its original context, the story reflects the time just preceding the second coming. And in Christ’s Object Lessons, that is the application give by Ellen White: “As Christ sat looking upon the party that waited for the bridegroom, He told His disciples the story of the ten virgins, by their experience illustrating the experience of the church that shall live just before His second coming” – COL 406. “The coming of the bridegroom was at midnight – the darkest hour. So the coming of the Christ will take place in the darkest period of this earth’s history” – COL 414.
But in The Great Controversy, the story is used to illustrate the experience of the Great Disappointment:
The proclamation, “Behold the Bridegroom cometh,” in the summer of 1844, led thousands to expect the immediate advent of the Lord. At the appointed time the Bridegroom came, not to the earth, as the people expected, but to the Ancient of Days in heaven, to the marriage, the reception of the kingdom. “They that were ready went in with Him to the marriage, and the door was shut.” They were not to be present in person at the marriage; for it takes place in heaven, while they are upon the earth. The followers of Christ are to “wait for their Lord, when He will return from the wedding.” [Luke 12:36] But they are to understand His work, and to follow Him by faith as He goes in before God. It is in this sense that they are said to go in to the marriage” – GC 427.
The SDA Bible Commentary, in its comments on the parable, does not even mention the application to the Disappointment. But it is still part of Adventist History.
Question: How does the possibility of multiple applications relate to the theme of constant preparedness? Does knowing that a passage of Scripture may have more than one application help keep us alert and prepared?
Living in the End Time
By Alden Thompson
(Signs of the Times, June 1984, pp. 8-10)
Somewhere in our town lives a man with l50 guns tucked away at home. Is he a collector or a crook? Neither, actually. He simply believes the world is about to fall apart. And when it does, he intends to protect himself from the rabble.
Because our local gunman is not alone in his fear of hard times, survival stores are hot items right now in several parts of the country. Our local newspaper quoted the owner of one such store in southern Oregon as claiming that 90% of his business came from the sale of firearms and self-defense items.
Now if a man sees his home as his castle, fortified against the imminent collapse of civilization, he probably won’t wander very far afield. In fact, a friend told me recently of one man in our valley who is so gripped by the fear of the end that he refuses to travel any further from home than the distance he can cover with his car on a half tank of gas. The other half tank in reserve is his protection from being stranded when the crisis strikes.
This survival mania poses interesting questions for Christians. Would you, for example, expect the gunman, the survival store owner, and the man with the half tank of gas to worship together on the week-end? And if they sat beside you in your pew in your church, what you want them to hear?
Somewhere along the line the man with the guns probably should hear Jesus’ word about turning the other cheek (Matt. 5:39). The man with the half tank of gas probably should hear about going the second mile (Matt. 5:4l). All three would no doubt profit from a sermon based on the text, “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:l8). But what about the underlying assumption that the world is on the verge of collapse? Does a Christian have something to say about that?
He should – for Scripture says a fair bit about the demise of civilization. But the New Testament hardly envisions a simple slide toward anarchy. Instead, Scripture tells of a clean sweep followed by a fresh new world – “a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away” (Rev. 2l:1). In such a scenario l50 guns or a half tank of gas won’t offer much comfort.
Because I grew up steeped in the fervent hope of the return of Christ and the end of the world, the reaction of some Christians to the biblical teaching puzzles me. In Scotland, for example, I had the privilege of becoming acquainted with a fine Christian gentleman, a Protestant and deeply committed to his faith. But when we talked about the end of the world, he simply confessed to being quite mystified.
On another occasion, a devout Roman Catholic woman attending classes on the campus
of our Adventist college, exclaimed, “I have never lived with this sense of expectancy, destiny or urgency.”
Now living without a sense of expectancy has one great advantage – one never faces the specter of disappointment. And Adventists do know something about disappointment. Born out of the Millerite movement of the nineteenth century, Adventists are the spiritual heirs of those who unflinchingly expected their Lord to come and the world to end on October 22, l844. But they were disappointed – keenly disappointed. In the words of the Adventist pioneer Hiram Edson, “Our fondest hopes and expectations were blasted, and such a spirit of weeping came over us as I never experienced before . . . . We wept, and wept, till the day dawn.”
In the agonizing days which followed, Adventists had to learn to live expectantly – but with disappointment. Fortunately, Jesus prepared his disciples for just such a situation and his counsel is recorded for us in Matthew 24 and 25.
The essence of the first of these chapters, Matthew 24, is a tantalizing paradox: signs will tell us the end is near, yet the end will catch us by surprise. Then from the three stories in Matthew 25, we discover an end-time agenda consisting of three simple principles: sleeping nights, working days, and helping those in need. Sounds suspiciously like life as usual, doesn’t it? Let’s take a closer look.
When the disciples asked about the signs of his coming and the end of the world, Jesus described the difficult times to come, but cautioned, “Don’t be alarmed; all this has to happen, but the end is not yet” (Matt. 24:6). In fact, wars, famines, and earthquakes would be “but the beginning” of troubles (Matt. 24:8). Nevertheless, these signs would show the disciples that his coming was “near, at the very gates” (Matt. 24:33).
But then the surprise – in spite of warning signs, the end would come as a thief in the night, “at an hour you do not expect” (Matt. 24:43-44).
Now if the Lord’s return is going to catch us by surprise, is it safe simply to continue to live life as usual? Jesus’ answer to that question is found in his final illustration of Matthew 24. There he tells of two servants, one “faithful and wise,” because he consistently fulfilled his responsibilities; the other “wicked,” because he said, “My master is delayed,” using that as an excuse to beat his fellow servants and to adopt a reckless, drunken lifestyle (Matt. 24:49).
The “wicked” servant apparently was counting on some kind of warning, something buying him time so he could shape up before his master returned. Surprise. The master returns “when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know” (Matt. 24:50). The moral of the story is clear enough – the one safe course is a faithful “life as usual.”
And does the text say anything about stashing away weapons? Not a peep. The wise servant knows that times will be difficult. Yet Jesus had counseled, “Don’t be alarmed” (Matt. 24:6). Thus the formula for end-time living is surprisingly simple: no fear, no special preparations, just a faithful life as usual.
“Wait a minute,” you say. “When times get tough my body begins pumping adrenaline. What’s the Christian’s antidote for that?” Good question and one to which we must return. But first a quick look at the other half of Jesus’ end-time counsel, Matthew 25.
Immediately following his discussion of signs and surprises (Matthew 24), Jesus tells three stories to conclude his “last days” discourse. Telling of high hopes, disappointment, and delay, these stories also raise the question of accountability – how have we lived in a time of expectancy and disappointment?
The first story tells of an oriental wedding party – ten virgins to be more precise – eagerly awaiting the bridegroom (Matt. 25:l-l3). But the hours slip by. No bridegroom appears. Disappointment.
The virgins not only slumber, they sleep – all ten of them. Now if we were telling the story, we would probably let the five foolish virgins sleep and keep the wise ones awake. But Jesus even put the wise ones to sleep. He wanted to show that a prepared person doesn’t need to panic when the Lord returns.
When the bridegroom actually came, the wise virgins had oil for their lamps and were ready to go. Only the foolish virgins panicked – the delay had burned up all their oil.
The second story, usually known as the parable of the talents, describes a businessman who entrusts his estate to his servants while he departs on a long journey (Matt. 25:l4-30). In contrast with the parable of the virgins, no dramatic sense of expectancy dominates the story. The focus is rather on accountability. Giving no clue as to how long he will be gone, the owner simply expects his servants to manage his estate during his absence.
He finally returns to settle accounts, but only “after a long time” (Matt. 25:l9). Two of the three servants had doubled their assigned capital, one converting five talents into ten, the other, two into four.
The master calls both of these servants “good and faithful” (Matt. 25:2l, 23). For them, his arrival had occasioned no panic, no frenzied burst of activity. From the day of his departure they had been prepared for his return.
But one servant did panic and right from day one. In his fear he did nothing with his one talent except bury it in the ground. Upon returning, his master called him “wicked and slothful,” chiding him for not making at least minimum effort by investing his one talent with the bankers. The master wasn’t asking for brilliant achievement or extraordinary effort; he would have been quite happy with “ordinary” faithfulness. But the man did nothing at all – except panic.
The final story in Matthew 25 is a judgment scene, the separation of the sheep from the goats. Jesus, represented by the king sitting in judgment, catches the “sheep” by surprise in quite a different sense. He welcomes them to his kingdom, commending them for all the acts of kindness which they have done to him personally – feeding him, slaking his thirst, welcoming him when he was a stranger, clothing him, and visiting him both when he was sick and when he was in prison (Matt. 25:35-36).
The saints are non-plussed, saying, in effect (politely), “We don’t know what you are talking about.” Then the surprise: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40). By their faithful “life as usual,” caring for the needs of those close by, the saints had ministered to the king himself.
How could Jesus have outlined a clearer plan for living in the end time? A follower of Christ must be prepared for delay. Prudent planning is therefore essential – we should always maintain an adequate supply of “oil” (for our “spiritual” lamps, not for our cars!). But then we should be able to sleep nights, to work days, and to continue ministering to those in need.
And in times of crisis, what is the antidote for our adrenaline? It is both simple and mysterious. Everyone burdened with the cares of this wild world is invited to come to Jesus for rest (Matt. ll:28). Knowledge of his love casts out fear (1 John 4:l8).
But wait. Let’s not be too hasty in choking off the adrenal glands. The troubles in the world are signs of the end. Such signs are God’s warning signals to those who are drowsy and unprepared. A shot of adrenaline could save their lives.