The recent spate of natural disasters and the serious threat of the avian flu pandemic have led some Christians to think that perhaps we are living in the period when the predictions of Jesus in Matthew 24 are being fulfilled. Even the media is beginning to speak of these natural calamities in language reminiscent of the apocalyptic passages of the Bible.
What are we to make of this? Do these disasters indicate that the end of the world is round the corner and that the return of Christ is imminent?
In order to answer these questions, we must clarify what the New Testament means when it speaks about the ‘end times’. By this term, the New Testament refers to the inauguration of the kingdom of God by Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Through the first advent of the incarnate Son, the eternal kingdom of God has entered into human history, thereby signaling the beginning of the end. The consummation of the kingdom will be brought about by the parousia or the return of the risen and ascended Lord.
The ‘end times’ that the New Testament speaks about therefore does not refer to the period in history that immediately precedes the return of Christ, as some Christians have mistakenly thought. It is the period between the incarnation and Second Coming of Jesus Christ. The ‘end times’ have lasted for two millennia so far!
When the New Testament speaks of the ‘signs of the end’, it is referring to certain phenomena that will take place during the period that it designates as the ‘end times’. Thus, the signs do not indicate that the parousia is about to take place soon. This is made clear by the fact that some of the signs predicted by Jesus were already evident to his contemporaries. In Matthew 24:34 Jesus says, ‘I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened’.
Some scholars interpret this statement as referring not only to the cataclysmic events that Jesus spoke of about but also to the parousia. If this were the case, then Jesus’ prediction was obviously wrong. But careful study of the context shows that ‘all these things’ does not include the return of Christ, but refer only to the events which are delineated in the preceding verses.
The signs therefore point to the fact that the end times have already arrived, although the end itself remains elusive. ‘Such things must happen’, Jesus says, ‘but the end is still to come’ (Matt 24:6b). These signs are therefore just ‘the beginning of birth pangs’ (Matt 24:8).
Jesus does not dismiss the importance of these signs, but in the Olivet Discourse he urges his hearers not to schematize the signs as if they present a kind of calendar of the end times.
Throughout the history of the Christian Church numerous attempts have been made to calculate the exact date of Christ’s return. Each generation of Christians would read the events in their own time as indicating the imminent return of Christ. Well-meaning Christians have forwarded many speculations about the possible identity of the antichrist throughout the Church’s history. Even in our day such speculations have not abated (Bill Gates being the latest candidate!).
Matthew 24:36, however, alerts us to the fact that such speculations are futile: ‘No-one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father’.
We inhabit a world that is changing rapidly, a world that has become very dangerous. The question that we need to ask ourselves is: How then should we live in such a world? Interestingly, this is the question that Matthew 24 and 25 seek to answer. The parables that bring the Matthean version of Jesus’ eschatological discourse to a close have to do with watchful discipleship.
The faithful and wise servant (Matt 24:45-51) will by his watchful obedience prepare himself for the return of the Master. The delay in his Master’s return would not in any way affect his commitment and resolve. The parable of the ten virgins (Matt 25:1-13) again drives home the point that Christians must be constantly prepared for the unannounced return of their Lord. And the parable of the talents (Matt 25: 14-30) emphasizes this same point yet again. This parable also stress that Christians should not wait for the end passively, but should immerse themselves in active service by using the talents that God has given to them.
The ‘signs of the end’ in Matthew 24 therefore are not meant to draw Christians into futile speculations. Rather they invite Christians to be prayerful and diligent, and to commit their lives to unflinching obedience and faithful service.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was originally published in the Methodist Message.