In light of the difficulty of interpreting Matthew 24:1-22, I think it’s important to remember what teaching led up to this passage of Jesus’s teaching, and where this passage leads. This passage immediately follows Jesus’s powerful condemnations of religious hypocrisy; Jesus clearly denounces people who pride themselves on appearing to follow the outward motions associated with the commands of God, while in fact missing the entire point of them, and thus who do evil. And his teaching culminates in three depictions (literal and parabolic) of final judgment in Matthew 25, in which Jesus describes how by their deeds he will distinguish those who truly follow him from all those who call him “Lord”.
Thus, when reading today’s passage, let us keep the broader story in mind: Jesus is telling his disciples not the exact time nor a comprehensive history of the end times, but how to live in a manner that is ready for and worthy of the Lord’s coming again at any time. Christ warns us that this will be a terrible time: verse 22 observes that “if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved”. But this is the necessary “birth pains” (v.8) for the return of Jesus: just as a birth is very painful, when the new baby is born, it is a moment of great joy, for which all the suffering was worth it. And so we must remember the even grander narrative of Scripture– that judgment is necessary before our greatest joy and hope, Jesus Christ, comes again and creates a new heavens and a new earth, a perfect world in which there is no suffering and we have perfect communion with our Bridegroom Jesus.
Because this is a Lenten reflection, I will focus on the theme of being ready in general for the coming of the Lord and will not engage with prophetic interpretations of this passage, of which there are many. But first I want to mention briefly the gravity and literalness of the words of Scripture. When Christ predicted that not one stone on the temple would be left upon another, at the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD, the soldiers set fire to the temple and literally took apart every stone in order to retrieve the precious gold on the building. Hence, when Christ addresses the abomination of desolation as the key sign of his coming, for which he commands everyone to stop whatever they are doing to flee, I want to be clear that it is in fact a very important question for Christians to debate, (and Matthew underscores this by adding, “let the reader understand”).
Having said this, I would like to return to this teaching with the greater narrative of non-hypocritical living in mind. In chapter 24 Jesus begins by pointing out to his disciples that of all that they saw of the buildings and the splendor, every stone would be thrown down. It is also a somber reminder to us of what kind of time is coming: the letter of II Peter reminds us that in the day of the Lord, “the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed” (2:10). If this is coming, then, we as disciples should be prepared.
But then rather than immediately giving indications of how to recognize his coming, Christ responds to the disciples’ questions with the warning, “See that no one leads you astray.” He mentions false prophets and false Christs five times in the first 28 verses of chapter 24; Jesus also pointed in general to wars, natural disasters, tribulation, martyrdom, traitors within the body of believers, lawlessness, false prophets, and apathy as things that would become more and more frequent towards the end of the age. So, in the words of the apostle Peter, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (I Peter 4:12-13).
In light of the knowledge of God’s impending judgment, we need to live carefully, being careful to examine ourselves and test that the way in which we live is worthy and blameless before the Judge. The image that Jesus portrays, of immediately dropping everything and fleeing without looking back has imagery related to the events of Sodom and Gomorrah: the kind of readiness we need to have living in light of the Day is radical and transformative. Whenever God is bringing judgment on a place or on our sin, we cannot afford to look back. When we look back and dwell in our sin, we metaphorically are like Lot’s wife; instead, we cannot be complacent and allow it to remain in us. We need to test ourselves, knowing that though it is not by works that we are saved, we need to abide in Christ and walk in his commands. We must endure (verse 12), knowing that if we persevere to the end, we will be saved.
Allen Lai ’20 is a Chemistry and Physics concentrator in Quincy.