This morning is going to be more of a teach than a preach. I can't possibly tell you what this passage means: there is so much content, and so many deep issues that we could preach on this passage from now to Christmas and still only scratch the surface.
So, instead, I would like to offer you a few thoughts that may help you to read and pray about and consider and maybe study this passage and other like it.
Why bother to read and study such passages? I will offer two brief reasons.
Let's have a quick show of hands. How many people think...
I know: it's mean of me to ask such questions. Christians aren't supposed to think. I could be even more mean and ask how many of you would be prepared to defend your choice? Fortunately, you don't have to. Partly because I'm not that mean, but mostly because all four positions are true, and are supported by numerous Bible passages.
Bruce Milne says it very clearly:
"The kingdom [of God] is therefore now realised in human experience through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, who on the basis of the work of Christ brings the life of the future age of glory into present reality."
[Bruce Milne, Know the Truth (IVP, Leicester: 1998), second edition, page 311]
And then, in talking about the tension between the 'now' and the 'not yet' of God's Kingdom, he says:
"The temptation always exists to escape this tension. It can happen in two ways. One is when we so despair of life in the here and now that we cease to expect God to work in the present, whether in our own lives or in the lives of others; God, if he is around at all, will have to do it all in the future. The other is the attempt to realise the kingdom wholly in the present." [Ibid.]
If we focus on the Kingdom being built here and now, the temptation is that it all become dependent on our efforts. Even when we desperately try to avoid it, we fall into this way of thinking.
Some years ago, there seemed to be a real fashion for preaching about Revival. I couldn't go anywhere without hearing another sermon on the subject. And every sermon, when you cut through the rhetoric, came down to the same message: Revival is a sovereign work of God, and He will send Revival if we repent of our sins and pray fervently enough.
So it is vitally important for us to hold on to both the 'now' and the 'not yet' aspects of the Kingdom. If we focus too much on the Second Coming, we lose touch with the here and now; if we focus too little on it, we lose touch with God's purpose for us and for the world.
How many people here think they are good at maths? How many think they are average? How do you feel about mathematics?
Matthew chapter 24 is one of the key prophetic passages in the New Testament. Biblical prophecy needs to be understood primarily as forth telling rather than foretelling. It is about the word of God being spoken into a specific situation, so that the people receiving the word can encounter the God Who is speaking it. Much of the worship we experience, when we are worshipping and not just standing up and singing songs, is essentially prophetic in nature.
So prophecy is about forth telling God's word. It is not about telling future history. Many Christians seem to avoid prophecy because it makes them feel they are failures. They take one quick look at some Biblical prophecy, and panic: "I don't know how to interpret this passage; I don't understand what it says; I don't know what is being predicted; I can't cope."
I had something of a revelation the other day. Most Christians respond to prophecy in the same way that ordinary people respond to maths.
Well - the good news is: you don't have to work it out in that way. Prophecy is not about telling future history, despite what you will read in many of the books you can buy at Wesley Owen
Some people talk about prophecy in a way that makes it sound like everything is predetermined: God can tell us about the future because He knows everything, so He knows exactly what will happen. Well, perhaps that is true. If you look hard enough, you can find maybe two and a half verses in the Bible that can be used to back up such a view.
But that is not the situation described or assumed by most Biblical passages. God can talk about the future, not because He knows what will happen, but because He has determined that certain things shall happen.
The end may be determined by God, but how the details work out depends on our faith and obedience.
What is Jesus doing in this passage, if He is not giving us future history?
I would like to suggest that Biblical prophecy is given, in general, to three distinct groups of people: those living before the event, those living during the event, and those living after the event.
We can see this in the example of Jesus telling Peter he will betray Him. Before the event, Jesus is saying "Stop boasting"; at the time, Peter recognised that the prophecy had been fulfilled and his response took him out of a dangerous situation; and afterwards, Peter started to understand that Jesus knows us and loves us and chooses to use us in His service despite knowing that we will let Him down.
The passage begins quite unbelievably. Jesus is walking away from the Temple, when His disciples call His attention to the buildings. There is an irony here, in that Jesus entire ministry can be seen as a challenge to the Temple system, with Jesus claiming that God and man meet and are reconciled not in the Temple with its rituals, but in His own person. The Temple, so important to the Jews, is being replaced, but the Disciples have not woken up to this yet.
Jesus tells them the Temple will be destroyed, and they ask Him a complicated question: "when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?"
They are asking about at least two completely different things - maybe three, depending on your theology. The Temple will be destroyed in AD 70: within the lifetime of many people present at that time.
Most scholars agree that, in His response, Jesus, talks in part about the destruction of the Temple, and in part about His Second Coming. It is all a bit mixed up, but that does not matter because He is prophesying to them and not laying out a future history.
The New Testament says a lot about Jesus' return. Much of it is argued about, especially when you start to worry about the sequence of events, but some things are very clear. The second coming will be:
"And this gospel of the Kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations and then the end will come."
In this verse, Jesus ties together both the 'now' and the 'not yet' aspects of the Kingdom.
The end will come. God will step into history and bring it to a close. The 'not yet' will finally become a reality. But when will this happen? When the gospel of the Kingdom is preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations. When we have done our job, when our task is complete - when our 'now' work is finished.
The second coming is an act of God. But the timing of the second coming depends on us - on our faithfulness, and our willingness to complete the task we have been given. The gospel must be proclaimed - evangelism and social action, hand in hand, telling about and demonstrating God's love - in every nation. That is our part.
If we did not have the 'Great Commission' at the end of Matthew, this verse would tell us all we need to know about the necessity of taking the gospel to all the world. If we want to see Jesus come again, that is what we have to do.
In case anyone is worrying this linkage between our activity and the Second Coming, the same truth is found in 2 Peter 3: 11-12. Talking about the Second Coming, and the way the world will be destroyed by fire, Peter says this: "Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live godly and holy lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming."
The task can be accomplished in our generation, just as it could have been in every previous generation.
It is very appropriate that this is Stewardship Sunday: it is only if we are prepared to act as responsible stewards that the gospel will reach the whole world in our generation. Will we spend our time and money on things that build the Kingdom, or will we waste them?
We have a special responsibility to reach Bristol for the Lord, a special responsibility to care for the poor and needy on our doorstep, but we also have a responsibility to take the gospel into all the world.
The church does not have to choose between local action and world mission - both are essential. For each of us as individuals and as families, the question is not whether we should be involved: the question is how.
And, perhaps, the questions for each one of us is: how much do we want to see the gospel of the Kingdom preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations so that the end will come and Jesus can return?