The world can’t seem to catch a break. A raging pandemic, then widespread inflation, now war comes to Europe for the first time in 75 years with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Uncertainty abounds. How ought Christians respond to such tumult? Jesus didn’t leave us to guess. He taught his first disciples (and us, through them) exactly how we should respond when our world seems to fall apart.
In Matthew 24, we find Jesus and his disciples in the week before he died walking through the temple area in Jerusalem. The disciples were largely country-bumpkins from Galilee, who didn’t get to the big city all that often. So they were awestruck at the magnificence of the great temple, which stood 150 feet tall at its highest. Out of nowhere, Jesus says, “You see all this? Truly, I say to you there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” Then he didn’t say another word.
It was like rolling a verbal hand grenade into their brains. It blew their minds. Later on at the end of the day, they can’t stand it anymore, and they ask Jesus, “Tell us, when will these things be?” Jesus answers them, in surprising detail, in one of his longest sermons, in the rest of Matthew chapter 24 and all of chapter 25. (If you have a red-letter Bible, you’ll see it’s all in red.)
In the rest of chapter 24, he vividly describes what will take place when Jerusalem is destroyed by Rome (40 years later, in A.D. 70). Interwoven in his answer is also a description of signs to look for near the time of his second coming (presumably much later on.)
Then in chapter 25 he tells three stories one after another, a Parable about Ten Virgins waiting for a wedding where the bridegroom is delayed; then the Parable of the Talents, where three servants are given money to invest while their master goes away for a long while; then finally the Parable of the Sheep and Goats, where Christ after his return divides humanity into two groups, rewarding one and punishing the other.
Though at first the two chapters may seem unrelated, chapter 24 describes how the world will end (though truthfully, it’s about the birthpangs the world will suffer to be reborn), and chapter 25 describes how we should respond when that suffering comes. There are three very distinct lessons in chapter 25.
The lesson of the Parable of the Ten Virgins is that we are to watch and pray.
When the bridegroom is delayed, all the virgins fall asleep, but upon his arrival, five of the virgins light their lamps with extra oil they’ve brought along, while the other five run out of oil, and end up missing the wedding. Jesus concludes the story saying, “Watch, therefore, for you know neither the day or the hour.”
To be watchful refers to our spiritual readiness or fitness. Oil is often a symbol in Scripture of the Holy Spirit’s presence and anointing (Isaiah 61:1, Acts 10:38). The extra oil the five wise virgins had on hand showed they were “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18).
Though Christ seemed absent, they continued to seek him through the spiritual disciplines their Lord had taught them of Scripture meditation, prayer, and fellowship (John 15:5-12). The delay of their Master didn’t cause them to cave into sin and sloppiness (Luke 12:35-48). They looked on their world with prayerful discernment (Luke 12:54-56). Like the “men of Issachar”, watchful people “understand the times and know what to do” (1 Chronicles 12:32).
Too many Christians are forgetting these days that “we wrestle not with flesh and blood”. Rod Dreher in his book The Benedict Option, writes, “Could it be that the best way to fight the flood is to…stop fighting the flood?” Too many are placing a disproportionate amount of their hope and energy into fighting flesh and blood, when if this battle is to be won, it will begin on our knees.
The lesson of the Parable of the Talents is that we are to work and pray.
In this story, before leaving to go on a journey, a master parcels out to three of his servants a varying amount of money to use while he is gone. (One talent was worth 6,000 days of wages! So the servant given “only” the one talent was hardly shortchanged, but made instantly wealthy by his master.) While two of the servants go to work with their master’s investment, the faithless servant buries his in the ground, and is sternly rebuked by the master upon his return.
The idea that every human life, from the simplest peasant to the greatest king, is created by God with immense value and purpose, would have seemed absurd 2,000 years ago, but is seldom practiced in our own.
The fact that Jesus inserts this parable into a sermon about the end of the world is even more jarring. What he is telling us is that no matter how bleak things look around us, and no matter how useless and hopeless life may seem, we are to use our lives, every breath of it, to grow God’s kingdom of beauty and goodness on the earth.
The lesson of the Parable of the Sheep and Goats is that we are to serve and pray.
Jesus uses this parable to give us a picture of what will happen to the human race after he returns. It’s a sobering one. Humanity is divided into two groups. One group is welcomed into God’s kingdom, to enjoy all the bounty of eternal life. The other is banished from his presence, sent away into eternal fire and punishment.
What distinguishes the two groups comes down in the end to how they treated the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned – what Jesus calls “the least of these my brothers”.
Don’t conclude that Jesus is teaching a form of salvation by works here. In the gospel of Matthew, good works are occasionally described as the “fruit” of faith and repentance (3:8, 10; 7:15-21; 21:43). The fruit of faith reveals if the seed of salvation is present. This helps explain why you can occasionally find Bible verses that describe a person being judged by their works (Romans 2:6, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Revelation 22:12). Their reprobate works are the proof that they never trusted Christ, who alone could save them.
Again, the context of this parable inserted into this sermon adds an important layer of meaning for us to grasp. In a world that is falling apart, where it looks like all hope is gone, and it would be best to hunker down, batten down the hatches, crawl under the bed (pick your metaphor), what we are to do instead is be the hands and feet of Jesus to all those suffering around us. Perhaps the day will come when it will be our turn to suffer, and then another will have to comfort us. But as much as it depends on us, in as much strength and opportunity as the Lord provides, we must serve others, and pray all the while for God’s Kingdom to come and his will to be done.
So here we are again watching our world unravel. (Not to be a Debbie Downer but we may want to get used to it. If indeed these cataclysmic events we have been witnessing are “judgments” of God, a “shaking of the earth”, meant to get our attention and bring us to our knees in repentance, then it would not seem that we are learning our lessons. Amos 4 through 7 might be an insightful read in this regard.) What should we do? How should we live? What’s the best response right now?
Watch and pray. Work and pray. Serve and pray.
Why don’t we start with Matthew 25, and trust the Lord to lead us from there.
Bear Clifton, writer and screenwriter, is the pastor of BridgeWay Community Church in California, Maryland. His blogs, screenplays and devotionals can be enjoyed at his ministry website: trainyourselfministry.com and his writing website: blclifton.com. Bear is also the author of “Train Yourself To Be Godly: A 40 Day Journey Toward Sexual Wholeness”, “Ben-Hur: The Odyssey”, “A Sparrow Could Fall”, and his latest – “Living Under The Cross”, a collection of essays on the Beatitudes – all available through Amazon.