THE COMING OF THE KING
“Learn the lesson which comes from the fig tree. Whenever the branch has become tender, and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you too see these things, know that he is near at the doors. This is the truth I tell you–this generation shall not pass away, until these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
“No one knows about that day and hour, not even the angels of heaven, not even the Son, but only the Father. As were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For, as in those days before the flood they spent their time eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark, and were quite unaware of what was to happen until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. At that time there will be two men in the field; one is taken, and the other is left. There will be two women grinding with the mill; one is taken, and the other is left.”
Few passages confront us with greater difficulties than this. It is in two sections and they seem to contradict each other. The first (Matt. 24:32-35) seems to indicate that, as a man can tell by the signs of nature when summer is on the way, so he can tell by the signs of the world when the Second Coming is on the way. Then it seems to go on to say that the Second Coming will happen within the lifetime of the generation listening to Jesus at that moment.
The second section (Matt. 24:36-41) says quite definitely that no one knows the time of the Second Coming, not the angels, not even Jesus himself, but only God; and that it will come upon men with the suddenness of a rainstorm out of a blue sky.
There is a very real difficulty here which, even if we cannot completely solve it, we must nevertheless boldly face.
Let us take as our starting-point Matt. 24:34: “This is the truth I tell you–this generation shall not pass away, until these things have happened.” When we consider that saying, three possibilities emerge.
(a) If Jesus said it in reference to the Second Coming, he was mistaken for he did not return within the lifetime of the generation listening to his words. Many accept that point of view, believing that Jesus in his humanity had limitations of knowledge and did believe that within that generation he would return. We can readily accept that in his humanity Jesus had limitations of knowledge; but it is difficult to believe that he was in error regarding so great a spiritual truth as this.
(b) It is possible that Jesus said something like this which was changed in the transmitting. In Mk.9:1 Jesus is reported as saying, “Truly I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Kingdom of God come with power.” That was gloriously and triumphantly true. Within that generation the Kingdom of God did spread mightily until there were Christians throughout the known world.
Now the early Christians did look for the Second Coming immediately. In their situation of suffering and persecution they looked and longed for the release that the coming of their Lord would bring, and sometimes they took sayings which were intended to speak of the Kingdom and attached them to the Second Coming which is a very different thing. Something like that may have happened here. What Jesus may have said was that his kingdom would come mightily before that generation had passed away.
(e) But there is a third possibility. What if the phrase until these things have happened has no reference to the Second Coming? What if their reference is, in fact, to the prophecy with which the chapter began, the siege and fall of Jerusalem? If we accept that, there is no difficulty. What Jesus is saying is that these grim warnings of his regarding the doom of Jerusalem will be fulfilled within that very generation–and they were, in fact, fulfilled forty years later. It seems by far the best course to take Matt. 24:32-35 as referring, not to the Second Coming, but to the doom of Jerusalem, for then all the difficulties in them are removed.
Matt. 24:36-41 do refer to the Second Coming; and they tell us certain most important truths.
(i) They tell us that the hour of that event is known to God and to God alone. It is, therefore, clear that speculation regarding the time of the Second Coming is nothing less than blasphemy, for the man who so speculates is seeking to wrest from God secrets which belong to God alone. It is not any man’s duty to speculate; it is his duty to prepare himself, and to watch.
(ii) They tell us that that time will come with shattering suddenness on those who are immersed in material things. In the old story Noah prepared himself in the calm weather for the flood which was to come, and when it came he was ready. But the rest of mankind were lost in their eating and drinking and marrying and giving in marriage, and were caught completely unawares, and were therefore swept away. These verses are a warning never to become so immersed in time that we forgot eternity, never to let our concern with worldly affairs, however necessary, completely distract us from remembering that there is a God, that the issues of life and death are in his hands, and that whenever his call comes, at morning, at midday, or at evening, it must find us ready.
(iii) They tell us that the coming of Christ will be a time of separation and of judgment, when he will gather to himself those who are his own.
Beyond these things we cannot go–for God has kept the ultimate knowledge to himself and his wisdom.
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