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Matthew 24:36-44 Biblical Commentary:
MATTHEW 24-25. THE CONTEXT
Our Gospel lesson is the middle portion of a two-chapter apocalyptic section that begins with Jesus’ prediction that the temple will be thrown down (24:1-2) and the disciples’ two questions, “When will these things be?” and “What is the sign of your coming, and of the end of the age?” (24:3). By the time this Gospel was written (probably 80-85 A.D.), the temple has already been destroyed (in 70 A.D.), so the question, “When will these things be?” has already been answered. These chapters, therefore, focus on the second question, “What is the sign of your coming?”
Jesus answers the disciples by giving signs of the end of the age (24:3-8), foretelling persecutions (24:9-14), telling of the desolating sacrilege prophesied by Daniel 7:13-14 (24:15-28), predicting celestial signs and the coming of the Son of Man (24:29-31), and giving the Parable of the Fig Tree (24:32-35). Our Gospel lesson begins at this point, but is of one cloth with the rest of chapters 24 and 25.
At the conclusion of our Gospel lesson, Jesus gives three parables that relate directly to our text:
• The Parable of the Faithful and the Unfaithful Slaves (24:45-51). The master rewards the faithful slave, whom he finds at work when he comes, but he destroys the unfaithful slave whom he found partying instead of working.
• The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids (25:1-13), five who were wise and prepared and five who were foolish and unprepared.
• The Parable of the Talents (25:14-30), in which the master commends the slaves who used his property wisely but condemns the slave who did not.
This apocalyptic section closes with Jesus’ portrayal of the judgment of the nations (25:31-46) in which the Son of Man separates people into two categories, the sheep who helped “the least of these,” thereby serving Christ, and the goats, who failed to render this kind of service. The sheep are welcomed into the kingdom, but the goats are condemned to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (25:41).
Throughout these two chapters, then, the consistent warning is to be prepared for the coming of the master. Those who heed the warning will receive great blessings; those who do not will be accursed.
We must face the reality that Advent, which is penitential, is very much out-of-synch with the prevailing mood of Christmas, our most joyful celebration of the year. Our people are focused on seeing a baby. Advent is focused on a risen Christ whose return seems long overdue and therefore has trouble competing with the baby, shepherds, Wise Men, Santa, Rudolph, etc.
Furthermore, while we are concerned about the future, the future about which we are most concerned has more to do with this-world concerns than with the return of Christ. We have our work cut out for us if we are to get people to take seriously their preparation for the Second Coming.
MATTHEW 24:36. NO ONE KNOWS OF THAT DAY AND HOUR
36“But no one knows of that day and hour, not even the angels of heaven (some Greek manuscripts add “nor the Son”), but my Father only.”
“But no one knows of that day and hour” (v. 36a). There appears to be a tension between 24:3-35 in which signs point to the end of the age and Jesus’ statement in this verse that no one knows the day and hour. However, the tension is more apparent than real, because a sign can warn a person who can understand that danger is imminent even though he/she doesn’t know exactly when the danger will manifest itself.
“not even the angels of heaven (nor the Son)” (v. 36b). Some Greek manuscripts include “nor the Son” while others omit that phrase. The idea that the Son is ignorant of the day and hour was difficult for a number of early Christians. Some scribes deleted “nor the Son” from their manuscripts. “Ambrose attributed ‘nor the Son’ to an Arian interpolation. Athanasius suggested that Jesus only feigned ignorance. The Cappadocians thought that the Son did not know the date on his own but only through the Father…. Chrysostom…simply denied that Jesus was ignorant of anything” (Allison, 141).
At the root of their discomfort is the difficult theology that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. Philippians 2:5-11, which speaks of Christ’s emptying himself, helps us to appreciate the reality of the limitations that Christ assumed in the Incarnation. Other examples of Jesus’ limited knowledge include his statement, “if it is possible” at Gethsemane (26:39) and his question, “why have you forsaken me?” at the cross (27:46).
“but my Father only” (v. 36c). We must not lose sight of the primary thrust of this verse that the Father alone knows the day and time of the coming of the Son of Man. As carefully as we might read signs, they will not allow us to predict the day and time with any accuracy. The Son of Man will come at an unexpected hour (v. 44). God will confound all efforts to predict the day and time. The good news is that, if we are living in faith, we have no need to know the day and time. We will be ready!
MATTHEW 24:37-39. AS THE DAYS OF NOAH WERE
37“As the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38For as in those days which were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ship, 39and they didn’t know until the flood came, and took them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.”
“As the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (v. 37). The floodwaters came quickly and without warning to everyone except Noah and his family. Once the rain started, there was no opportunity to prepare for what was to follow. Only Noah and his family were prepared for the flood, so only Noah and his family were saved.
“For as in those days which were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ship” (v. 38). The people of Noah’s day were destroyed because of their wickedness, but that is not the analogy here. Rather, Jesus compares the normalcy of their daily lives with the normalcy that will prevail before the Second Coming. Eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage! Who can fault that! The fault is not that people are doing these things, but that they are so caught up in the routine of daily living that they take no thought for their spiritual lives. Their problem is not “gross sin” but “secular indifference”—”nonchalance about God” (Bruner, 881).
“until the day that Noah entered into the ship” (v. 38). It isn’t that Noah’s neighbors had no warning. It must have taken Noah a long time to build and to provision the ark. They could see him at work, and must have questioned him about it. He surely called them to repentance so that they, too, might be saved. However, they surely regarded Noah as a religious fanatic. Noah would have been hard pressed to say anything that would have jolted them out of their rut. The situation was very much like that of people today. There are people sounding the warning, but few take them seriously.
“and they didn’t know until the flood came, and took them all away” (v. 39a). The day that the water started rising was a surprise for these people. At first, they were mildly concerned. Then they grew anxious as water crept toward their homes. Then they became afraid as the water continued to rise. Then they became frantic as everything washed away. And then it was over. By the time they were sufficiently aroused to do something, it was too late. The time for preparation was long past.
“so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (v. 39b). Many people will be surprised at the Second Coming—surprised and unprepared. They will find that the time for preparation is long past.
Like Noah, we need to get ready before the rains start. Our ark is the church (Hauerwas, 206).
MATTHEW 24:40-42. ONE WILL BE TAKEN AND ONE WILL BE LEFT
40“Then two men will be in the field: one will be taken and one will be left; 41two women grinding at the mill, one will be taken and one will be left. 42Watch therefore, for you don’t know in what hour your Lord comes.”
“Then two men will be in the field: one will be taken and one will be left; two women grinding at the mill, one will be taken and one will be left” (vv. 40-41). Again the emphasis is the normalcy of life. People are engaged in everyday work. There is no indication that today will be different from yesterday or the day before. Life goes on. Except, in this instance, it doesn’t! One is taken and one is left in place.
This and similar verses (see Luke 17:34-35; 1 Corinthians 15:51; 1 Thessalonians 4:17; 5:2-4; Revelation 3:3, 10; 16:15) have given rise to the doctrine of the rapture (from the Latin rapio—seize, carry away)—the belief that, at the Second Coming, the faithful will be immediately taken up to a heavenly reward and the unfaithful left behind to their hellish fate.
I am ill equipped to assess the validity of rapture-theology, which seems to require an understanding of such exotic subjects as millennialism, dispensationalism, and tribulation.
However, these (millennialism, etc.) are not biblical words, and I believe that we are on less than solid ground when we depart from biblical language.
I am further concerned about all the divisions (pre-millennialism, post-millennialism, pre-tribulation, post-tribulation, etc.) that have arisen from rapture-theology. We should probably limit ourselves to the points that Jesus teaches here, namely that:
• Christ will come again.
• His coming will be swift and surprising.
• He will divide people into two groups (taken/left behind).
• So we had better be ready.
That is the point—we had better be ready. If we focus on readiness, we need not worry about the details. We can trust Jesus to get the details right.
“Watch (Greek: gregoreite) therefore, for you don’t know in what hour your Lord comes” (v. 42). Gregoreite can be translated “keep awake” or “watch” or “be on guard.” We can’t do any of those things in a physical sense 24/7, but our preparation has to do with spiritual rather than physical wakefulness. The person who lives in daily companionship with Jesus will not be threatened by Jesus’ sudden appearance. Instead, Jesus’ coming will be an occasion for joy, much like the joy that we experience when we finally see a loved one after a long absence—or like the joy of a long-lost person at the appearance of a rescuer. Also, see the comments at the end of this exegesis for ways to prepare for Jesus’ coming.
MATTHEW 24:43-44. A THIEF IN THE NIGHT
43“But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what watch of the night the thief was coming, he would have watched, and would not have allowed his house to be broken into. 44Therefore also be ready, for in an hour that you don’t expect, the Son of Man will come.”
“But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what watch of the night the thief was coming, he would have watched, and would not have allowed his house to be broken into” (v. 43). Jesus is not a thief in the night, but his coming will be as unexpected and unpredictable as the arrival of a thief at night.
“Therefore also be ready” (v. 44a). Get ready and live ready. The great moment will come to us only once. We don’t want to miss it–or to be found wanting.
“for in an hour that you don’t expect, the Son of Man will come” (v. 44b). This repeats the emphasis of the opening verse of this lesson (v. 36) regarding the unexpected hour of the coming of the Son of Man, thus bringing a nice closure to this lesson.
Christians, as early as Chrysostom, have stressed the importance of readiness for death as well as for the Second Coming. That is important. A hundred generations have lived and died without experiencing the Second Coming, so it seems unlikely that it will take place during our lifetime.
If the probability of the Second Coming taking place in our generation is low, however, the probability that we will die is high—100 percent at last count. Some of us will die inch-by-inch from disease or old age, but death in the next instant is also possible. Even people who work in hazardous occupations (firefighters, police officers, soldiers) find it difficult to imagine their own death. Imagine then how difficult it is for those of us in safe occupations—such as a secretary working in the World Trade Center—to imagine our imminent death.
A problem with this Gospel lesson is that it calls for readiness without telling us how to get ready. What must we do? In the next chapter, Jesus gives two answers. First, the Parable of the Talents (25:14-30), tells us to use our God-given resources for God’s benefit. Second, Jesus says that feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, and visiting the prisoner are activities that will be credited to us as if we had done them for Christ (25:31-46).
This twofold emphasis is consistent with Jesus’ answer to the lawyer who asked Jesus, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus gave a twofold answer:
“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. A second likewise is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments” (22:37-40).
So can prepare for Christ’s coming by (1) loving and serving God and (2) loving and serving our neighbor.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Barclay, William, Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 2 (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1957)
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Beker, J. Christiaan, Proclamation 6: Advent-Christmas, Series A (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995)
Boice, James Montgomery, The Gospel of Matthew, Volume 2: The Triumph of the King (Matthew 18-28)(Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2001)
Boring, M. Eugene, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995)
Borsch, Frederick Houk and Napier, Davie, Proclamation 2, Advent-Christmas, Series A (Fortress Press, 1980)
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Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
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Johnson, Sherman E. and Buttrick, George A., The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 7 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1951)
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Senior, Donald, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Matthew (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998)
Soards, Marion; Dozeman, Thomas; McCabe, Kendall, Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Year A (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993)
Wylie, Samuel and McKenzie, John L., Proclamation: Advent-Christmas, Series A (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974)
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Copyright 2009,Richard Niell Donovan