In all honesty, there are times when I want to scream some things from the rooftops of my theological beliefs; this is one of those times. Of course, there is a bit of tongue-in-cheek to what I am saying here, but another way of putting this is that there is some major misunderstandings of Scripture’s context. This misunderstanding is going to be the core of what follows.
Scripture and Context
I had professors in college and seminary who consistently reminded us students that when we interpret the Bible, we must be aware of context. The context of Scripture basically finds itself nestled into the bigger picture in the story of the Bible. A perfect example of this is Paul’s letter to the Philippians, specifically the fourth chapter.
You see, everyone’s favorite verse in Philippians 4 is verse 13 – “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Many well-meaning believers wear this verse as a t-shirt, or even have it hanging on their wall in their living room, or maybe even wear it on their eyeblack if they play professional sports. Yet, these artistic renderings of such a verse really do not incapsulate the true meaning of this verse in its context. Paul’s place of writing was a Roman prison and if you read the verses before and after verse 13, you will find that Paul’s message was not about Jesus’s concern for your football game or the fulfillment of your own desires, but instead Paul is writing to tell his Philippian brothers and sisters that through Christ, he can endure anything his adversaries throw at him. Only the context of Philippians allows for an interpretation that is not merely focused on Paul’s situation and how Jesus can fix it.
How Does Context Relate to the Signs of the Times?
It does not take long for a student of the Bible to look at passages like Matthew 24 or the book of Revelation as a whole and make the claim that Christ’s return is drawing near – that is, “the signs of the times are evident in our world today.” It seems like I hear this phrase at least ten times per week during this time of pandemic in American history.
But, is this really how the Bible describes the return of Jesus?
Once again, this is the more important question. Many of my professors in the undergraduate and graduate levels, all taught us that context is king. In fact, as one studies the original, biblical languages, one finds that words with multiple meanings are given their meaning essentially by context of the larger pericope from which it finds itself. For instance, the Hebrew word for “day” is yom, which means day or a period of time. A way to illustrate the different meanings is with a sentence like the following: “I will arrive home during the day on Tuesday.” The first use of the word “day” indicates the middle portion of the day rather than a literal 24-hour day. However, the word “Tuesday” does indicate a literal day. Yet, both of these words could be translated as the word “day” in Hebrew. Therefore, it is context that makes the deciding factor for meaning.
The same is true regarding the last days. Now, the term the “last days” could confuse the student of the Scriptures because of the different ways in which the apostles used it themselves. What most people understand this term to mean is the specific time period in which certain events will unfold in order for the return of Christ to commence. In other words, students of Scripture will read verses like Matthew 24:10-12 which says,
"And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold,”
and believe that Christ’s return CANNOT come to fruition until there are at least: 1) a falling away, 2) betrayal for one another, 3) a rise of false prophets, 4) an increase in lawlessness, and 5) a love that grows cold in many.
The problem with seeing Matthew 24:10-12 as a “predictive” text is, once again, the context of the discourse. The Olivet Discourse – what theologians and New Testament scholars call this passage of Scripture – is presumably Jesus’s most famous dialogue about the end of the age. However, in order to understand the context (remember, context is king), the most important questions we must ask are the following:
- Who is speaking?
- To whom is the speaker speaking?
- For what reason is the speaker speaking?
- How does the message of the speaker relate to the passages before AND after?
- How does this passage fit within the grand theme of the book?
- How does this passage fulfill the Bible’s ultimate story of redemption?
If we understand Jesus to be speaking (question 1), and also understand him to be speaking about the end of the age (question 3), then our first main question should be to whom is Jesus speaking about the end of the age? And, the answer is the disciples. Read this next verse carefully with my own added personal emphases:
"Jesus replied to them, “Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and they will deceive many. You are going to hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, because these things must take place, but the end is not yet" (Matt. 24:4-6).
If you see the bolded words in the above verses, you notice that Jesus is speaking “to them.” Who is “them?” It is the disciples. Verse 3 of chapter 24 tells us that the disciples approached Jesus on the Mount of Olives and privately asked when the end of the age would come. So, the “them” and “you” of these verses are the disciples. Jesus is speaking to the disciples about the end of the age because they have privately asked Him to reveal the time of His return.
Except, Jesus does not do this directly. Jesus does not give them specifics. Jesus does not tell them a time. Instead, He gives them instructions on what to be doing when He comes as King.
So, what about today?
If the disciples wanted to know how the end of the age would commence, I’m sure most of us do, as well. We all want to know how it will happen. But Jesus simply does not tell us.
I believe it would be an unfaithful rendering of the text of Scripture to read a passage like Matthew 24 and make a “checklist” of things that need to happen in order for Jesus to return and take us home to Heaven. I just don’t believe that this is how the end will commence, nor do I believe that this is how Jesus describes it in Matthew 24. For one, it would make no sense for us to examine Matthew 24 and read it as if it was directly spoken to us. The passage clearly indicates otherwise. Jesus was speaking to the disciples and telling them that they would see wars, earthquakes, and so on.
Another reason I believe this does not indicate a “checklist” type of belief is because of what Jesus said after these words. If you continue on down in Matthew 24, you find a parable (the fig tree), Jesus telling His disciples that only the Father knows the time in which He will return, and then, I believe, you find the main theme of the passage.
In Matthew 24, Jesus was telling His disciples that the last days will be replete with lawlessness and evil, and this has been true of the world since the fall of man. Jesus’s message to the disciples was not, “Wait until all of these things happen,” but, instead, His message is “My return is imminent, so you must be ready.” Matthew 24 is not a message of the certain events leading up to the second coming of Jesus, but instead is a direct discourse from our Lord Himself imploring us to be ready.
"Blessed is that servant whom the master finds doing his job when he comes" (Matthew 24:46).