Text: Matthew 24:15-28
Today our attention turns toward the end times and the return of Christ. This week and next we’ll be focusing primarily on the return of our Lord and for what purpose He comes. His first coming was to preach the Word of God and to secure for us the forgiveness of sins by His death on the cross. His second coming will be to raise all the dead, gather all the faithful to His side, and stand in judgment over those who rejected His salvation. The big word for all this kind of talk is eschatology, or, the study of the last things. In the early centuries of the Church, as we heard in our Epistle text, the return of Christ was looked forward to with fervent anticipation. Though, now it seems to have left the mind of many, or else the joy of Christ’s return is replaced with fear.
It’s easy for our minds to sway that way. The Gospel reading for today, taken by itself, without context, can be frightening. It can be mystifying. But, we should understand, the reason why Jesus is saying these things is not to scare us, but to prepare and comfort us. Jesus said, “I have told you beforehand.” In St. Luke’s account Jesus also said, “When these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” So, if it is correct – that Jesus teaches us these things to comfort us – what is one thing we can be comforted by today? In our text, when Jesus teaches not to be swayed by those saying He is out in the wilderness or in the inner rooms, He’s teaching that because soon He Himself will promise to be with His people always. Just after our text, He institutes the Sacraments and promises to be with us always and never be apart from us. Therefore, in our text Jesus teaches us the signs of His Coming so that we are not deceived, and learn to look for Him where He already is and will always be until His return.
Our text takes place around Tuesday of Holy Week. Sunday is the Triumphal Entry and the cleansing of the temple. The next few days see Jesus teaching in the temple a final time. As He and the disciples are leaving in chapter 24, He caught them marveling over the great buildings. Jesus said to them, “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.” Jesus was indicating that the temple, the place of God’s holy abode, would be destroyed as a judgment against unbelief. This had happened earlier, 500 years before Christ, but this prediction of Jesus came true some 40 years after His ascension, when the Romans destroyed both the temple and the city.
Jesus is a clever and skilled teacher, so He’s able to teach two things at once. In our text He’s teaching about the destruction of Jerusalem as both the temporal judgment of God against His people’s infidelity and as a sign of the impending eternal judgment of God against sin and unbelief. This means that we should understand the destruction of the temple and the holy city not just as God’s specific judgment against them, but as a point from which we should be always prepared for Christ’s return. We should see the destruction of the temple as an indicator that we are in the end times. Or, to be more precise – the temple is destroyed because God’s chosen people rejected the Messiah. In Christ, the fullness of the deity became flesh. In Jesus the mystery of God’s salvation was made plain for all to see. We should see in His incarnation, death, and resurrection, the surest sign that we are near the end. But, like the disciples, we can be kind of dense. In His compassion, Jesus doesn’t rebuke us. He is patient and teaches us further about the end times.
Jesus has already taught about the wars and rumors of war that are to come when He says,
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. Let the one who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house, and let the one who is in the field not turn back…
Remember that Jesus is teaching about two things at once. These verses are attached to the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem. The abomination mentioned could be a reference to a few things. First, we read in the book of Maccabees that king Antiochus Epiphanes set up a pagan altar on top of the altar that was already in the temple. Or, it could be reference to Roman interference with temple worship. Long story short – the temple’s going to be destroyed and Jerusalem with it. When these things happens, to condense Jesus’ words: Get out.
There’s a subtle shift in verse 23. Remember that Jesus is really good at teaching and can do two things at once. He’s talking about the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple as both the temporal judgment of God and as a sign of the end times. We’ve all heard the passages about wars and rumors of wars and pestilences and famines; but there’s one aspect I want us to latch onto today. Jesus says,
Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you beforehand. 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 the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.
One of things that Jesus says is going to happen before He returns is a continual spread of false teachers and false doctrine. Jesus says that, first of all, there will be false christs. History has shown us some examples of this. Scripture itself contains accounts of those who came claiming to be someone. (Acts 5, for example.) I think Luther’s interpretation of this passage is helpful, especially since we don’t so much see people claiming explicitly to be Jesus. Luther says this also applies to those who teach in Christ’s name what He has not said. So this applies to pastors. Jesus says that in the end times many false pastors will come and teach what is not right – and claim that it is true Christian teaching. This fits well with Jesus saying there will also be false prophets.
What sort of things will these men of falsehood say? Jesus gives examples. They will try and draw people to go find Christ in places where He hasn’t promised to be. What does that mean? They will teach people to search for Jesus out in the wilderness, that is nature, or in the inner rooms, that is the mystical warm feeling of Jesus that you can only experience by yourself. It is true, that by the power of being God, Jesus is everywhere, but He hasn’t told us to look for Him there. Instead, He has told us two places to look for Him and find Him. His Word and His Sacraments. In these trying times, the devil tries to lead many astray by convincing them to look for Jesus in places He hasn’t promised to be.
But, Jesus is telling us all these things so that we would be prepared and comforted by His coming. Against all the world and the devil, there are two places where Jesus remembers and is faithful to His promise to be with us always. First, He has promised to be with us through His Word. Jesus says that where two or three are gathered in His name, He also is there. Scripture itself is living and active. It is the instrument through the Spirit of Christ creates and maintains faith within us. Christ is always with us in His Word. Second, Christ promised to be and is with us in the Sacraments. In Baptism, He joins us to Himself, taking our shame and clothing us with His righteousness. Through Baptism we have access to our Father in heaven. In Absolution, Christ works through His Word spoken through the mouth of pastors to forgive sins and mend broken hearts. In His Supper, Christ is with us in a tangible way – a way we can see, feel, taste – for the forgiveness of sins. So, when men come to lead God’s people astray from the Word and the Sacraments – where Christ has promised to be found – we repeat Jesus’ words, don’t believe them and don’t go out.
My dear friends in Christ – taken by itself, this text can be kind of distressing. But, for those who are found in Christ, it is a comfort. It is a comfort that we are now in the end times, for the end is when our Savior comes. Then will the redemption He won for us on the cross be made complete when we are forever separated from sin, death, and the devil. But until then, things are going to be bad. Jesus says so. He also encourages today to look for Him not where people say He is – in the wilderness, in inner rooms – but where He promises to be. He has promised to be with us always and to always be found in His Holy Word and Sacraments. Then, when the end comes, Christ Himself will appear like lightening and gather us with all the faithful to enter His everlasting joy and peace.