Text: Matthew 24:15-28
Today we begin our final approach toward the end of the Church Year. You might’ve noticed in the readings already that the tone has changed. Though we had a preview of this back on the Tenth Sunday after Trinity, yet this week we now begin to hear about the return of Christ and the final judgment in earnest. And, though our Lord’s words may be difficult to hear, yet His purpose is not to frighten us or make us fearful of His coming, but to prepare us for it. He gives us these words so that we might watch for His appearing, be ready for it, and eagerly await the resurrection of the dead.
Our Lord sometimes has the habit of teaching about more than one thing at a time. In St. Luke’s recollection of the conversation in our text today, he organizes our Lord’s teachings into two parts to be easier to understand. But, that’s not how St. Matthew does it. He preserves our Lord’s teaching of both the destruction of Jerusalem and His return, even if it does mean covering both topics at the same time. In the text, our Lord teaches about the final destruction of Jerusalem and about His return; one will come with a warning, the other not.
The setting of our text this week is the Mount of Olives, perhaps the Garden of Gethsemane, even, somewhere in the middle of Holy Week. If you remember, the sequence of the early part of Holy Week is that Jesus would teach in the temple during the day and lodge at Bethany during the night. One day, as He was leaving the temple with His disciples, the disciples began marvelling over the great buildings of the temple complex. Jesus said to them then, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” (Matthew 24:2, English Standard Version) Here, Jesus again, foretold the destruction that would come Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans a little less than 40 years later. Now, in the immediate sense, the disciples were confused by what Jesus meant. If you read just before our text in Matthew, they were thinking Jesus was speaking about His return there; but He wasn’t. Instead, He was foretelling the punishment Jerusalem would receive for her rejection of the Savior.
This is a major topic in Scripture and for the history of the Church. Judged by the amount of emotion and words dedicated to it, the destruction of Jerusalem – by both the Babylonians in the Old Testament and the Romans in the New – are about the most painful lessons in Scripture. We heard back on the 10th Sunday after Trinity how our Lord wept over Jerusalem, how He longed to gather them as a hen would her chicks – but they wouldn’t have it. All throughout the prophet Jeremiah’s ministry, God the Father bore His heart and deep sorrow over the rejection of His people. They hated His Word and each other; they lived lives of idolatry, violence, hatred, and adultery. Yet, all the while, they took pride in their city and temple. They believed that no harm could ever come to it. We also heard on Reformation Sunday how our God is just; justice demands the punishment of sin, including unbelief. And so, our Lord allowed Jerusalem to be destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. When the Babylonians became full of themselves, God allowed them to be destroyed by the Persians.
Just as God’s people rejected Him in the Old, they did it in the New. Although many did believe in Christ and receive salvation through faith in Him, many rejected Him – as did Jerusalem as a whole. Therefore, as judgement against them, God would allow Jerusalem to be destroyed once again; though it would not be without warning. Our Lord said to the Disciples, “So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place…then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.” (vv. 15-16) This is a reference to a prophecy given in the book of Daniel, that armies would come and surround Jerusalem on every side. They would disrupt worship and pollute the temple with their idols. Our Lord teaches us here, that Daniel spoke of the Romans. But remember, our Lord’s purpose is not to frighten, but to prepare. Therefore, He encouraged the Disciples that, when they saw these things coming, to flee Jerusalem. And, actually, that’s what they did. Ancient historians tell us that when the Romans came, the Christians remembered these words of Jesus and fled to the town of Pella, and so were safe from harm.
As we said, though, the Lord sometimes has a habit of speaking about more than one thing at a time. Our text today is one of those times. Up to verse 22, our Lord warns of Jerusalem’s coming destruction. There would be signs for the Christians to see and leave beforehand. However, the topic changes in verse 23. After Jesus said the temple stones would be thrown down, the disciples asked Him what the sign of His return would be. Jesus’ answer to that question begins in verse 23, but comes really in verse 26. The Holy Spirit records for us through St. Matthew, “So, if they say to you, ‘Look, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” (vv. 26-27)
The destruction of Jerusalem, really both times, was long preceded by various signs and indications. We don’t have time today to speak much about them, perhaps it would be a good Bible study. But the return of Christ, Jesus Himself says, will be different. There will no sign. Sure, we have signs in general that we are in the End Times, and have been since the Resurrection and Ascension – earthquakes and famines and such – but there will be no sign before Jesus returns. Instead, it will be immediately and plainly visible to all people – just like lightning, for example. The other example Jesus gives is about the vultures. If you’re outside and you see a ring of vultures flying overhead, you know what’s going on. Same with Jesus’ return. Everybody’s going to know; but it will be without warning. St. Paul said, “The Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God.” (1 Thess. 4:16) St. John adds, “Behold, He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him.” (Rev. 1:7)
Now, the purpose of hearing and speaking about these things is not to frighten ourselves or make us afraid of Christ’s coming. Rather, having been instructed by the Lord, we can be confident that He is coming. He has redeemed us by His blood and won for us eternal life. Soon, He will come to gather us to His side and put away forever all sin and malice. Since we know that the Day will come, and we are reminded this day that it will be without warning, let us then endeavor to be found faithful. The Lord has brought us into His family, He has revealed to us what is good and true, and even produces good works in our lives through the Holy Spirit. Let us pray that He would cause us to be given to them, and abound more and more. St. Paul wrote, words we’ll hear again in a few weeks, “You know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” (Rom. 13:11-12)