"Watching and Working"
(Delivered Sunday, November 16, 2008 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
We are living in uncertain days. And even though that's an over-used and worn-out phrase, I'm pretty confident that its use is appropriate to our times today.
We're living at a time when our nation's economy is in the most serious trouble that it has been in for years . . . and in which we're not at all certain that those who are proposing to fix it actually can. We're living at a time in which new leadership is about to take the helm of our nation . . . and in which it's very uncertain what shape our government may be taking in the next few years. We're living at a time in which the moral character of our culture is being forced into a fundamental alteration . . . and in which we cannot be certain that the standards of 'right and wrong' that our parents and grandparents took for granted will be recognized or enforced any longer.
I'm sure that you feel that sense of uncertainty. And though I wish we could look ahead and say what things will be like in a short while—and whether or not it will be for good or ill—we cannot.
But in the midst of all of this uncertainty, I want to affirm something this morning that is an absolute and glorious certainty. It's something that you and I can hang-on to, draw confident and sustaining joy from, and be guided by through all the uncertainties of our time. No matter what may happen in the short-term, Jesus Christ is coming back to reign on this earth as King of kings and Lord of lords—and perhaps very soon.
And that's an ultimate certainty, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, that we are meant to carry with us into every area of our lives on this earth. We are to bring that hope with us everywhere; and allow it to inform our outlook in our family life, our jobs, our neighborhoods, our schools, our politics, our leisure, and even into the most private meditations of our hearts. We are to be a people who are so alive with the excitement and anticipation of the Lord's return, that we are constantly watching for it, perpetually ready for it, and faithfully working in the light of it.
What a holy and hopeful people we would prove to be if—in the midst of this hopeless and uncertain world—we would faithfully live in joyful anticipation of the Lord's return!
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Well; I have just basically given you the conclusion to this morning's sermon. Now; please allow me to lay out before you the part of the sermon that preceded it, so that—our Lord willing—you will come to the same conclusion yourself!
We have been studying together from Jesus' words concerning His return, as they are given to us in Matthew 24. Those words were spoken because His disciples asked Him what would be the sign of His second coming, and of the end of the age (v. 3). And in answer to their question, He described some of the general characteristics of the times that would precede His return.
But He deliberately left things vague as to the specific time and date. They didn't know any more about the date of His return than we do—except that we know that it was not in their day. We tend to believe that He will be coming soon in our day; but they believed He would come back in their day two thousand years ago. He has basically given His followers only enough information to energize them with the expectation that He is going to come; and to inspire them to live in constant readiness.
And that leads us to this morning's passage in the later half of Matthew 24. In it, Jesus expands only a little further on what He has said—giving us just a little more information about the nature of the times in which He would return.
He states two truths about the nature of His return; and then concludes with two commands that naturally follow from those two truths. And He does so for a very practical reason. He doesn't give us all the information we may wish to hear in order to gratify our curiosity about the future; but instead gives us the information we need in order transform the way we live right now.
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Look with me through the later half of Matthew 24; specifically through verses 32-52. And let's begin by noting first . . .
1. TWO TRUTHS ABOUT THE NATURE OF OUR LORD'S RETURN.
He had just described His return in verses 29-31. And now—as if to give more information than His disciples had actually asked for—Jesus tells them;
And so, here, we see that Jesus first shows His disciples . . .
a. That the events surrounding His return will occur quickly (vv. 32-36).
You probably looked at a lot of trees on your way to church this morning. You probably saw lots of trees that were bare; and lots of leaves piling up on the ground. This lets you know that winter is on its way. Similarly, in a few months—when you'll begin to see the bare branches of the trees beginning to sprout, and the leaves beginning to form—you'll know that summer is about to arrive.
It was the same in the part of the world in which Jesus spoke these words. Fig trees where everywhere; and because folks would help themselves to the figs that grew on them, they would often look at the tree and see whether or not its branches were becoming tender and putting forth leaves. This would not only indicate that good fruit was coming; but that summer was coming as well.
Jesus lets us know that this natural phenomenon is provided to us as a spiritual object lesson. Just as certain changes in the fig tree indicated that a new season was coming in just a short amount of time, so the appearance of the events Jesus described would indicate that His coming is near. And the surprising thing He lets us know is that, though His people may have to wait centuries for these things to begin, they wont take centuries to be completed once they start. When they begin to happen, the completion of them—culminating in His glorious return—will come quickly. Once they start happening, His return will be so near that He says it will be "at the doors". And speaking with great solemnity, He says, "Assuredly [or "truly"] I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place".
What did our Lord meant by "this generation". Some suggest that Jesus is here leaving us with the implication that the precious Jewish people will endure to the end; and that in spite of all the fury of a wicked world during the days of tribulation, they will not be wiped off the face of the earth. And I agree that this truly is an implication of Jesus' words. But I believe the whole context of this passage requires that we understand Jesus to be saying that the generation of people who will be alive to see the beginning of these events will also live to see them end.
There will be a swift certainty to those events once they begin. They will not fall short; but they will be completed and utterly consummated by the return of the Lord shortly after they start to occur. Jesus lets us know this when He says, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away." The fact that His return will follow swiftly after those times begin is more certain than heaven and earth itself!
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ; you and I are not to be like the people of this world, who will look in fear and dread at the uncertainty of the times. We are to have a different perspective of the times than they have. As our Lord tells us elsewhere in Scripture, "Now when these things begin to happen, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near" (Luke 21:28).
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Not only will the events surrounding His return come quickly; but we also see . . .
b. That the time of His coming will be unexpected (vv. 37-41).
He goes on to say;
When God looked upon the world long ago, and saw that wickedness permeated the human race, He announced that He would destroy that old world with a flood. And seeing that only Noah and his family found grace in His sight, He commanded Noah to build the ark. For the hundred years that he labored and constructed the ark, Noah was a living testimony to the people of that time that the judgment of God would indeed come. As the Bible tells us; "By faith Noah, being divinely warned of things not yet seen, moved with godly fear, prepared an ark for the saving of his household, by which he condemned the world . . ." (Hebrews 11:7).
Imagine! A hundred years of warning. And yet, our Lord lets us know that the people of that time greeted Noah's testimony with indifference. They engaged in 'business as usual'. They did the normal, short-term things of life—such as eating or drinking; but did so in the shadow of the ark, and its warning of impending judgment. They engaged in the normal, long-term commitments of life—such as marrying and giving in marriage; but did so when the days of grace were short. They carried on this way even up to the time that Noah entered the ark. Perhaps they even held their hands out above their heads and laughed in mockery, to show that there wasn't any rain. But suddenly—when they weren't expecting it—the rain came, and the flood waters took them all away.
Jesus lets us know that it will be just like that when He returns. People will ignore the signs of the times. They will carry on with business as usual—not realizing that they are doing so while the very culmination of the ages was at the door. So suddenly and unexpectedly will the Day of the Lord come upon them that it will result in a dramatic and startling separation of people; two men will be working out in the field, and one will be taken and the other left; two women will be grinding at the mill, and one will be taken and the other left. You might say that the people of this world will have had at least two-thousand years of warning; and yet, sudden judgment will utterly catch the world off-guard. "For when they say, 'Peace and safety!' then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape" (1 Thessalonians 5:3).
Peter speaks of this when he writes to his believing friends, and urges them to remain steadfast in the things they were taught . . .
Our Lord lets us know that "of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only." In some translations, it even adds that our Lord Himself doesn't know that day or hour (see also Mark 13:32). Our Lord has submitted His divine omniscience to the Father; so that the day and hour of His return remains locked in the Father's knowledge and will alone. Yet even our Lord Himself looks with anticipation—watching for the great day when the Father will say, "The time has come, My Son. Go and get Your Bride."
So; if not even our Lord--who looks with endless, joyful anticipation for that day--doesn't know when it will be; just think of how unexpectedly it will come upon this ungodly world!
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Our Lord lets us know that the day of His return will not only be very unexpected as to time, but also that the events surrounding it will be very quick as to occurrence. And these two truths about our Lord's return—that it will be swift and unexpected—is to affect the way that we, His people, live today.
This leads us, next, to . . .
2. TWO COMMANDS GIVEN TO OUR LORD'S PEOPLE IN THE LIGHT OF THESE TRUTHS.
First, He tells them,
And this shows us . . .
a. That they should be constantly watching and always standing ready for His return (vv. 42-44).
Whenever I read this, I think back to an apartment my wife and I lived in while I was going to college. It was in an area that was subject to a lot of car break-ins and thefts. We found that you couldn't keep anything in your car because it would attract thieves. Stereos and car parts were constantly being stolen from the parking area during the night. (They used to say that a car was broken into every twenty minutes in the city of Portland . . . and we were pretty sure we owned that car!)
Each time our car was broken into, we thought of how we wished we could have known in advance when it would happen. That way, we could be ready; and could have protected ourselves from theft. We thought that it sure would have been nice if the thief would have shown us the courtesy of letting us know when he was coming! But it was a silly thing for us to think. One of the trade secrets to successful theft (I'm supposing!) is that a thief doesn't announce his arrival in advance. And with so many break-ins, we should have always been ready.
If a man knew the hour that a thief was going to break into his house, he'd watch for him. He would keep an eye open along the pathways and the bushes. He would listen for any unusual noises, or watch for moving shadows. He would expect the unexpected. He would protect himself from loss. And our Lord is telling us that that's to be our attitude with respect to His return. We're to "watch, therefore". We're to "be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect."
It's surprising how many times in the Bible our Lord's return is compared to the coming of a thief in the night. Paul says, in 1 Thessalonians 5:2, "For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night." In 2 Peter 3:10, the apostle Peter writes, "But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night . . ." And in Revelation 3:3, our Lord says, “Behold, I am coming as a thief. Blessed is he who watches . . ." In telling us this, He is not saying that He is a thief who comes to steal things. Rather, He's telling us that His return to this world will not come with announcements or early-warning alerts—not any more so than a thief in the night would announce his break-in in advance.
And the point of it all is that we are to constantly "watch" for His return, and be "ready" for it; and not allow ourselves to suffer the loss that will fall upon those who are caught by surprise at His coming. As He told His disciples on another occasion:
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A practical application of this is that we should make sure that we always live in such a way as we would want to be found by Him at His return. And this leads us to a second command that He gives His disciples, in the light of the swiftness and unexpectedness of His return, is . . .
b. That they should keep to the work He has given them so that He will find them faithful (vv. 45-51).
I often think of this as a reminder to me, as a pastor—and to all of us who are in a "teaching" or "preaching" role—that we'd better be faithful to teach God's word. We are to be "diligent" to present ourselves approved of God, "a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15). What a horrible thing it would be to have the Lord suddenly come upon us and find that we were neglecting to feeding His people the truth of His word!
But the same command has application for all of us who follow the Lord Jesus Christ; because we are all in His service! We all need to be about His work; and to make sure that we are found faithful to the tasks that He has given us should He suddenly return! To think that He is delaying His coming, and that we can then allow ourselves to be unfaithful to Him, is to fall into the very trap He warns us about in this closing passage.
When I think of this passage, I also think of another passage of Scripture in 1 Peter 4. Peter begins by affirming what our Lord would want us to know in our passage this morning; that "the end of all things is at hand . . . " (1 Peter 4:7). We're living in the light of the Lord's return. It's true that the Lord didn't come back in Peter's day. And it may be that He doesn't come back in our day either. But we are, nevertheless, living in the time when "the end of all things is at hand". There is nothing left that remains undone in God's program of redemption. The only thing that is now left to occur is our Lord's sudden and unexpected return.
And what should we do in the light of this fact? Peter goes on to say that we are to be faithfully doing our work. He says,
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So then; we go back again to the affirmation that I shared with you at the beginning. In this dark world of uncertainty, we have the greatest certainty of all to affirm—Jesus Christ is coming again!
But let's remember the two things our Lord has taught us about that return: that it will come upon this world both swiftly and unexpectedly. He warns us of these two things in advance. And let's remember how we are to respond to these two words of warning: that we are to "watch" and always "be ready"; and that we are to keep faithful to the work that He has entrusted to us.
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