This week brings us to a portion of Matthew which is very hard to understand and make sense of. Many Christians would prefer to ignore the strange and unsettling images in this passage (and its parallels in Mark and Luke), while others seem to be preoccupied with the end of the world and some among them believe that they have the precise understanding of how it will happen. The question I want to ask is: what might be a more healthy response to what we read here?
Normally I give reflection questions, yet due to the difficulty of this passage of scripture I'm going to include a few notes that I hope will be helpful.
First, it’s important to understand the purpose of Apocalyptic prophecy in Jewish and early Christian thought. The main goal of Apocalyptic prophecy is not so much to tell people what the future will look like, but to give persecuted and oppressed members of God’s people the assurance that God is still in control of history in spite of present injustice and suffering, and to affirm God’s promise that he will one day put the world to right and make all things new.
Second, Apocalyptic prophecy uses a lot of symbols which are deeply rooted earlier Biblical prophecy. In other words Apocalyptic prophecy is written in code. It is intentionally hard to understand, in part to keep us humble because the future belongs to God and it is not our place to know all of what is to come. God tells us just enough to put our minds at ease and give us courage to face the present. It was also written in code because it holds a dangerous message – God is in charge of the world and human tyrants will be judged and condemned. In times of oppression that kind of message could get people killed, so it’s safer to speak it and write it in code.
As an example of this code look at what Jesus says in Matthew 24:15 about what he calls an ‘abomination of desolation’ or ‘desolating sacrilege’. To know what he’s talking about you need to read Daniel 9:20-27 and also the first chapter of the apocryphal book of 1 Maccabees (especially 1 Maccabees 1:54). To have any idea what he is trying to say with this coded language you need to know what earlier prophets have said, and the larger story of Israel. Or to put it another way, if Apocalyptic prophecy confuses you don’t feel bad. This is tough stuff and requires you to know the Bible well to have any hope of understanding it.
Just take away the key message of this passage which I take this way: Don’t let the troubles of the present shake your faith – there will be troubles, but God’s still in charge and will turn these troubles to good in the end. Don’t let others fool you into thinking they know when the end will come. There will be a day when Christ appears as the world’s true king, but it will come suddenly and will be something that cannot be missed. Be faithful to Christ and know that God will put the world right and make all things new on that day.