‘Nobody knows what day or time this will happen,’ Jesus went on. ‘The angels in heaven don’t know it, and nor does the son; only the father knows. You see, the royal appearing of the son of man will be like the days of Noah.
‘What does that mean? Well, in those days, before the flood, they were eating and drinking, they were getting married and giving children in marriage, right up to the day when Noah went into the ark. They didn’t know about it until the flood came and swept them all away. That’s what it’ll be like at the royal appearing of the son of man.
‘On that day there will be two people working in the field. One will be taken, the other will be left. There will be two women grinding corn in the mill. One will be taken, the other will be left.
‘So keep alert! You don’t know what day your master will come. But bear this in mind: if the householder had known what time of night the burglar was going to come, he would have stayed awake and wouldn’t have let his house get broken into. So you too must be ready! The son of man is coming at a time you don’t expect.’
It was a fine Saturday afternoon in the heat of summer. The family, some on holiday from work, were relaxing in the house and the garden. Books and magazines were lying around the place, along with coffee mugs, newspapers and packets of biscuits. Everything had the look of the sort of cheerful untidiness that a large family can create in about an hour.
Suddenly there was a ring at the doorbell. Wondering vaguely which friend might be calling I went to answer it, dressed as I was in very casual clothes. There outside, to my horror, was a party of 30 or so well-dressed visitors. They had arranged, many months before, to come to look at the house, because of its historic associations. And neither I nor the family had remembered a thing about it.
You can imagine the next five minutes. I suggested that the visitors went into the garden for a little while (‘to get a good look at the house from the outside’), and then mobilized the family to clear everything up. Within minutes everything was clean and tidy. The children retreated into bedrooms. We opened the front door again and the visit went ahead.
You can tidy a house in a few minutes, if you put your mind to it. But you can’t reverse the direction of a whole life, a whole culture. By the time the ring on the doorbell happens it’s too late. That’s what this passage in Matthew 24 is about.
It has been applied to two different kinds of event, neither of which was what Jesus himself had in mind (though some think Matthew was already looking further ahead). We had better look at them first.
On the one hand, a great many readers have seen here a warning to Christians to be ready for the second coming of Jesus. This goes, obviously, with an interpretation of the earlier part of the chapter which sees the ‘coming’ of the son of man not as his vindication, his exaltation to heaven, but as his return to earth. We have been promised, in Acts 1; 1 Thessalonians 4 and many, many other passages, that one day, when God remakes the entire world, Jesus himself will take centre stage. He will ‘appear’ again, as Paul and John put it (e.g. Colossians 3:4; 1 John 3:2). Since nobody knows when that will be, it is vital that all Christians should be ready all the time.
On the other hand, many other readers have seen here a warning to Christians to be ready for their own death. Whatever precisely one thinks will happen immediately after death—and that’s a subject devout Christians have often disagreed about—it’s clearly important that we should, in principle, be ready for that great step into the unknown, whenever it is asked of us. That’s one of many reasons why keeping short accounts with God, through regular worship, prayer, reading of scripture, self-examination and Christian obedience, matters as much as it does.
You can read the passage in either of these ways, or both. Often the voice of God can be heard in scripture even in ways the original writers hadn’t imagined—though you need to retain, as the control, a clear sense of what they did mean, in case you make scripture ‘prove’ all kinds of things which it certainly doesn’t. It is vital, therefore, to read the passage as it would have been heard by Matthew’s first audience. A great national crisis was going to sweep over Jerusalem and its surrounding countryside at a date that was, to them, in the unknown future—though we now know it happened in AD 70, at the climax of the war between Rome and Judaea. Something was going to happen which would devastate lives, families, whole communities: something that was a terrible, frightening event and at the same time an event that was to be seen as ‘the coming of the son of man’, or the parousia, the ‘royal appearing’ of Jesus himself. And the whole passage indicates what this will be. It will be the swift and sudden sequence of events that will end with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.
The point this passage makes comes in three stages:
First, nobody knows exactly when this will be, only that it will be within a generation (verse 36).
Second, life will go on as normal right up to the last minute. That’s the point of the parallel with the time of Noah. Until the flood came to sweep everything away, ordinary life was carrying on with nothing unusual.
Third, it will divide families and work colleagues down the middle: ‘One will be taken and one left.’ This doesn’t mean (as some have suggested) that one person will be ‘taken’ away by God in some kind of supernatural salvation, while the other is ‘left’ to face destruction. If anything, it’s the opposite: when invading forces sweep through a town or village, they will ‘take’ some off to their deaths and ‘leave’ others untouched.
The result—and this is the point Jesus is most anxious to get across to his disciples, who by this stage must have been quite puzzled as to where it was all going—is that his followers must stay awake. They must be alert and keep watch—like people who know that surprise visitors are coming sooner or later but who don’t know exactly when.
The warning was primarily directed to the situation of dire emergency in the first century, after Jesus’ death and resurrection and before his words about the Temple came true. But they ring through subsequent centuries, and into our own day. We too live in turbulent and dangerous times. Who knows what will happen next week, next year? It’s up to each church, and each individual Christian, to answer the question: are you ready? Are you awake? Are you keeping watch?