Startling Truths from Matthew 24 and 25

Matthew 24 and 25 contain two startling truths (among others) that have big implications for Seventh-day Adventists.

Startling Truth #1: Stop using Matthew 24 to scare people.

Matthew 24 lists a number of calamities happening in the world such as wars, famines, pestilences, and earthquakes (Matt 24:6, 7).

That list of troubles is often the centerpiece of our evangelistic presentations regarding the End Time and the Second Coming of Christ.

“It must be near,” we say, “because even though there have always been earthquakes, there are many more of them now.”

“We have had wars before, but never on such a worldwide scale.”

“The Second Coming must be near because of the unprecedented spread of disease.” Etc. Etc.

For many years I took it for granted that such a perspective was correct. The speakers sounded so convincing. Then I looked more carefully at Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 24 and was startled by what I found. Notice the words in bold:

“The disciples came to Him privately, saying, ‘And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?’ And Jesus answered and said to them: ‘Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are NOT troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is NOT yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places. All these are the BEGINNING of sorrows’” (Matthew 24:4-8 NKJV).

The Lord advises, “Don’t misinterpret what’s going on here. Don’t think that every time there is an upswing of awful things happening in the world that my coming is near. They are simply part of life on a sin-filled planet.” Christ is not warning about the end but about trying to predict the nearness of the end.[1] He talks about the meaning of these events in just the opposite way that we do! He says, “The end is NOT yet and we reply OF COURSE IT IS!”

James White issued the following caution in 1877: “Wars, pestilences, famines, and earthquakes are not the surest signs of the end. These have ever existed.”[2] He knew that crying wolf too many times destroys credibility.

You would think it would be instructive to us today that every generation of Adventists before ours has been wrong about the closeness of the Second Coming.

For instance, many Adventists were convinced that the horror of World War I meant that the Second Coming had to be imminent. An article by W. E. Straw in the November 28, 1918 issue of the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald captures the prevailing sentiment, “Everything in the economic and political world indicates that the events of this earth have about reached their culmination.”[3]

During that same year, the flu pandemic raged worldwide and devastated a mind-boggling number of lives. According to the CDC, about 500 million people, or one-third of the world’s population, became infected with the virus. Deaths were estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide, with 675,000 in the United States.[4] An editorial in the February 11, 1919 issue of The Signs of the Times, commented,

“Did you ever think of the situation in the light of the following words from Jesus Himself? ‘And there shall be great earthquakes, and in diverse places famines and pestilences.’ It is well to keep in mind, as you are studying this scripture, that the Lord is speaking of events which lead up to His second coming.”[5]

World War I and the flu pandemic were over one hundred years ago. Not very near.

Christ also taught that there would be signs in the sun, moon, and stars but they would occur immediately prior to His coming, not centuries before (Matt 24:29-31). I have to admit that in some ways I admire the chutzpa of someone who would still use the darkness of May 19, 1780 to convince people today that the end is right around the corner.[6]

As if to underscore His admonition, Christ closes chapter 24 by saying: “Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour YOU DO NOT EXPECT” (Matt 24:44 NKJV).[7]

Our church’s addiction to signs had a powerful influence on me as a newby Adventist. I nearly dropped out of college to preach the warning. I put off purchasing my first house much too long. And that was fifty years ago!

Today, based on Jesus’ admonition, I would simply ask devotees of sign watching to please stop. Cease. Halt. Desist.

So what does it mean then to be an “Adventist”? It means we teach that Jesus’ Second Coming is certain. It will be literal and very visible around the globe. It means we believe in life beyond the grave and ultimate accountability. It means we are a people of hope.

Being Adventist also means leading people into a deep, consistent, durable spiritual experience that is not unsettled by tribulation or the uncertain timing of the Savior’s arrival (Matt 24:13). It means developing people who live in joyful anticipation of someday seeing their beloved Lord.

Startling Truth #2: Become known for unconditional love.

The venerable phrase “What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder,” is usually quite straight forward. It’s often pronounced right after the marriage vows. When ministers arrive at the point in the ceremony when vows are being exchanged, their laser-like focus tends to relax a bit. The hardest part, the sermonette, is in the rearview mirror. Perhaps that is why a pastor I heard presiding at a marriage ceremony absent-mindedly stumbled.

I was sitting about half-way back in the congregation enjoying the wedding of a family friend. When the pastor reached that fateful section, he said confidently, “What man hath joined together.” I immediately sat up in my seat and leaned forward. I knew he was in trouble. “Now what?” I thought. I could almost hear the pastor’s brain whirring.

With only a short delay, he came up with what I consider to be a brilliant recovery. This is how the whole phrase unfolded: “What man hath joined together… and God hath ordained… let not man put asunder.” Ministerial kudos. They don’t teach you that in seminary.

Stephen Langton also messed that phrase up in a less literal sense back in A.D. 1227. As the Archbishop of Canterbury, he is credited with dividing the Bible into chapters and verses.[8] Very helpful idea, except for some miscues along the way. One of the most consequential miscues for Seventh-day Adventists is his chapter division between Matthew 24 and 25.

Langton basically said, “What God hath joined together, I’m going to separate and cast asunder.” Not good.

You see, Matthew 24 and 25 are actually a unified, cohesive, whole called the “Olivet Discourse.”[9] They encompass a continuous teaching by the Lord. There should not be any chapter division between the two at all. By ending chapter 24 where he did, Langton obscured its close connection to what follows.

In Matthew 24, Christ urges us to watch and be ready at all times, but doesn’t tell us how to do that. That is left to chapter 25.[10] The Lord does so through the use of three crucial parables. They actually outline a three-step process for living prior to Jesus’ coming and form a “how to wait and watch” trilogy.[11] I will focus here mainly on the third.

The first parable, the Wise and Foolish Virgins, tells us to live a life dependent on and guided by the Holy Spirit (Matt 25:1-13).

The second parable, the Talents, tells us that the Holy Spirit gives us spiritual gifts and abilities in order to fulfill Christ’s purpose (Matt 25:14-40).

The third parable, the Sheep and the Goats, tells us what living out Christ’s purpose actually looks like (Matthew 25:31-46).

In the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Jesus talks about "SHEEP PEOPLE" who have made love the central theme of their lives. “For I was,

hungry and you gave Me food;

I was thirsty and you gave Me drink;

I was a stranger and you took Me in;

I was naked and you clothed Me;

I was sick and you visited Me;

I was in prison and you came to Me.”

It would be a mistake to take this list of social needs in only a literal sense and think we have fully met what is required by opening a food pantry, giving away used clothes, conducting a prison ministry, and sponsoring a health clinic. There is always more going on under the surface. These people are hungry, not just for potatoes and carrots, but for empathy and support. They are thirsty for acceptance and understanding. They are estranged from a sense of purpose and meaningful relationships. They feel naked physically, emotionally, spiritually. They are imprisoned by this world’s deep inequities.[12]

William Barclay describes Sheep Love this way: “It was the natural, instinctive, quite uncalculating reaction of the loving heart… The help which wins the approval of God is that which is given for nothing but the sake of helping.”[13]

These Sheep People love deeply, unconditionally, persistently. Like the sun, their love shines indiscriminately on the diverse needs of society.

On the other hand, Jesus' parable also talks about "GOAT PEOPLE." Right here is a very important point that we can easily miss: the main problem with goat love is that it is SELECTIVE.

These goat people say they would have been more than willing to help if they had only known it was Christ they were ministering to. Jesus' point is that genuine love doesn’t pick and choose. It doesn’t value some people’s needs over others any more than the sun chooses only certain people on which to shine its warming rays.

One glaring example of goat love is the typical church “evangelistic interest file.” Those names who do not want Bible studies are gradually pushed toward the back and eventually forgotten. Suppose the church finds out later that one of the people who got pushed to the back really does want Bible studies after all? Can't you hear some of us saying something to them like the following:

"Oh, I'm sorry. If I'd only known you were a spiritually interested person, I would have spent more time with you."

"Oh, if I had only known you wanted baptism, I would have paid more attention to you."

And doesn't that also sound remarkably like the goat people in the parable, "Oh, if we’d only known it was YOU.”

We track and measure what we value most, and nothing is more carefully tracked and measured in Adventism than baptisms. That is the need we have selected to be the most deserving of our time and attention.

However, from what I read in Matthew 25, thinking that helping to alleviate homelessness, racism, sexism, poverty, hunger, and income inequality are somehow less valuable than giving Bible studies is goat love. Measuring the overall success of a local church’s investment in the community based on how many baptisms it produces is goat love. Only a foolish farmer would believe that the harvest is more important than weeding, watering, and fertilizing.

After meeting all the societal needs listed in the parable, I don’t recall Jesus asking the Sheep People, “But how many of them joined the church?”

It is time to clearly affirm that churches need to spend the great majority of their outreach effort on Spirit-led involvement in meeting social and societal needs. That is the very soil from which the Holy Spirit grows spiritual interest in people’s hearts [See note [14]].

We cannot create spiritual interest in anyone. That is the Spirit’s responsibility and He uses the unconditional love of Christ’s followers to accomplish His work. The more intense and pervasive the love, the more powerfully the Spirit can influence lives.

We therefore need to unleash and value the full spectrum of caring within Adventist hearts that not only decries evil but also gets involved up to its ears in efforts to alleviate it in all its forms, both individual and systemic.

In light of current events, I am ashamed to say that as a theology major and then pastor during the late 1960s and the decade of the 70s, I played no part in the Civil Rights Movement. I told myself, “What’s that got to do with preparing people for the Second Coming?”

I have since tried to pay close attention to Jesus’ words in Matthew 25 and become more involved in justice ministries. I hear the Lord saying to me, “Truly I tell you Kim, whatever you do for those who are hurting and downtrodden, who are marginalized and ignored, you do unto Me” (Matt 25:40 NIV).

Notes & References:

[2] James White, Review and Herald, November 29, 1877, p. 172, Vol. 50, No. 22.

[3] W. E. Straw, “The Time Is at Hand,” The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, November 28, 1918, Vol. 95, No. 48.

[5] “The Pestilence and the Comfort,” Signs of the Times, February 11, 1919, Vol. 46, No. 6

[6] Seventh-day Adventists Believe, (Washington, D.C.: Ministerial Association of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 1988) 340

[7] The “you” in the phrase “At an hour you do not expect” applies to Christ’s followers. See Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995) 616

[12] Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapid, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997) 211-212

[14] Note: It would be a huge mistake to think that Pentecost and the conversion of thousands recorded in Acts 2 occurred only because of what happened in the Upper Room. By far, it was the direct result of the extraordinary, unconditional, counterculture love that Jesus showered upon people during His three-and-a-half years of ministry.

Kim Allan Johnson retired in 2014 as the Undertreasurer of the Florida Conference. He and his wife Ann live in Maitland, Florida. Kim has written a number of articles for SDA journals plus three books published by Pacific Press: The Gift, The Morning, and The Team. He has also written three sets of small group lessons for churches that can be viewed at www.transformyourchurch.com (this website is run by the Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists). He is also the author of eight "Life Guides" on CREATION Health.

Photo by Sam Carter on Unsplash

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10537
5 Likes

Thank you for this, Kim. Just wanted to support your Point 2 by looking back to Matthew 24:12: “And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold” (NRSV). It’s in the indicative, as merely a statement of fact. But Matt. 25 makes it clear that it’s not supposed to be true of those who are awaiting the kingdom.

4 Likes

A lot of thought-provoking information here; thanks. In a recent situation the word “SHEEP!” was used as an epithet towards me as I was wearing a protective mask on my face. The other person was a stranger and could not have known about my health situation, only that I was “blindly” following the local health department’s recommendations to avoid the spread of a supposed Covid-19 virus. If we all became more involved in personal efforts of assistance towards the hurting, downtrodden, marginalized and ignored, without any thought of the possible tax-deductibility of our actions, we might also be called “SHEEP!”. It could be painful, but there is comfort in following our Shepherd.

This is extremely timely. I have heard the usual SDA rumblings about how the 2nd coming is just around the corner because of this virus, and then we see a remarkable and graphic portrayal of our systemic racism being spread all over our TV news which adds to the clamor. It is an Adventist panacea of time ending events…but your article makes the ultimate point, this isn’t what are focus should be on. If we are all so busy telling the world that the sky is falling, we simply miss the point that there are millions of people hurting that need love and attention. They need to know that there is more to life than the fears of a virus or hatred and discrimination. They need to see a loving people who care about them regardless of whether they show an interest in our beliefs or not. Running thousands of evangelistic series, one right after the other, isn’t going to hurry Christ’s return. Often, what we present as “Truth” is our own self-satisfaction at our ability to “prove” we are correct by throwing a bunch of proof texts at them.

I absolutely loved this article.

3 Likes

The last part of the article was excellent, and I don’t think many of us can disagree. This must happen to all followers of Christ and not just this institutional church. God’s true church is invisible; we are part of a movement and have much to contribute. But we can’t deny our name. We are called “Adventists” for a reason.

The Bible admonishes us to live as if the “time is near,” and it is and has been for every human being who has ever lived. We are mortal and Christ comes for us when we go outside of time with our last breath. This is a “no brainer.”

Christ’s coming in our lifetime is another matter, and the early Christians looked forward to it, and were not afraid. Christ’s signs also pointed to the destruction of Jerusalem. As Jan Paulien notes in his book on Revelation, all of those signs did occur before 70 AD. Christians were able to flee the city in time.
What is meant by the “last days?” The first Christians thought they lived in the last days. If we look at the metaphor of 6000 years, some could conclude that the last 2000 have been the last days. It could also be interpreted as the years after WW 1 (or 1844) from when there was been little peace and humanity has invented horrendous weapons. The holocaust was a sign of the last days and the bomb, and subsequent killing of millions in Russia and China by communism. If it weren’t for God’s protection holding back satan we could have destroyed the earth by now.

If George Washington and King David could observe our modern life, they would both be just as amazed. There has never been a time in history that humans have achieved such advances that the world knows everything that happens daily and ideologies spread like wildfire. We can spy on each other; kill millions, spread rebellion, suffer increased lawlessness, group hate, etc.
This tower of Babel must end soon. I don’t understand how Jesus could come as “a thief in the night” yet that day be ushered in by calamities and a time of trouble, yet it seems increasingly possible. I hope so. All we need is to see that overwhelming love in the lives of God’s people including, as Jesus said, those “not of this flock.” (I am using this term to mean nonChristians.)

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