As I write this article I am riding a train from Birmingham to Ashford on the 2022 UK Tour. We had a wonderful first stop in Birmingham and I’m excited about what is coming up next! (For those who are interested in tasting a bit of the adventure, I have a photo album on my Facebook page). So far the team has been awesome, the ministry fruitful, and God’s kingdom has been generous - as it always is.
As exciting as the trip has been, it has of course been overshadowed by the recent events in Ukraine. In fact, when we first landed after an overnight flight to London, when we flipped our phones back on, the world news that greeted us was that of Putin’s invasion. What a bizarre experience to arrive in Europe the very time war broke out!
All across the globe we’ve all wrestled with what to think and to feel as we’ve been arrested by the media: a constant stream to video footage of destruction and experts trying to forecast what may be coming next. Protests have begun all across the world. Aid has begun to flow to Ukraine through many different channels and world leaders have begun to evaluate how to act against Russia in a way that brings an end, not an escalation to the conflict. Christians everywhere have begun to pray for the kingdom of God to bring the peace that is the hallmark of our Prince (Isaiah 9:6).
Grappling with the Meaning of it All
It’s been interesting to see how different voices have grappled with how to think about these events. Well-known evangelist Greg Laurie represents one of the frequent Christian responses: welcome to the end-times citing Matthew 24:6 and Jesus’ teaching in the Olivet discourse. Take this seriously: look to the Lord now and respond to his summons to salvation.
In response to this posture, many counter that this is exactly what people always say when war breaks out anywhere and it’s not overly profitable to get caught up in end-times speculation. This isn’t about escaping the earth: we should be doing what we can to pray for and help those affected by these horrific events.
As human beings, it is natural to work to try and find meaning in disruptive events like this. In my opinion, I think both of these responses are people doing the best they can to wrestle with how to ascribe meaning in a biblical sense to events that are too emotionally loaded to leave vacant of interpretation. At the same time, I think they both miss something important.
The first approach runs the risk of being yet another instance of the Church crying “this is the end of the world - Jesus is coming back!” when there have been thousands of instances of that cry not being followed by his second coming. Someday that interpretation will be right, but it will be right exactly one time in all of history, and it has a tendency to spiral up a bunch of fear and confusion to those who listen.
The problem with the response the other way is, it doesn’t really give these events much meaning that we can anchor ourselves to. We’re stuck with, “this is just the way it is in this broken world” - which in the face of such tragedy doesn’t feel very satisfying. Shouldn’t our faith have some meaning to make of moments like this?
Jesus does indict the religious teachers for not being able to read the signs of the times (Matthew 16:3). Being able to understand the happens of this world in light of the activities of the kingdom of God is important.
Upon reflection, I’m not sure that we have to settle for either of these unsatisfactory options. I do believe we can read the signs of the times, but the way to read them well is not the option that has been put on the table. It’s more nuanced and interesting than that.
What does the Olivet Discourse Mean?
Towards the end of the book of Matthew (and with a shortened version in the book of Luke), the disciples ask Jesus a question that prompts two chapters of teaching from Jesus. The question is captured in Matthew 24:3:
Tell us, when will these things be and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
Jesus then replies with an alternating set of signs to watch for, and teaching and parables about how the kingdom of God will act at that time. Included early in the list are the “wars and rumors of wars” that end-times advocates reference. The passage concludes with the Son of Man separating the sheep from the goats and assigning them different fates.
Reading the passage through, I can understand how Greg Laurie and others come to the conclusion they do: it seems pretty open-and-shut that they’re reading one of the signs that Jesus describes and coming to the appropriate conclusion.
While I applaud their attempt to take the words of Jesus seriously, I believe the error they make is by doing that without placing them in the kingdom framework that Jesus describes throughout his whole life and ministry. Without that, it seems trivial that the question above is the disciples asking, “How can we know when your second coming and the end of history will be?” The problem is that’s not what the question the disciples are asking means.
If you haven’t taken the time yet, take a few minutes and read my recent article, The Time-Complicated Nature of the Kingdom. (If you don’t read the rest of this article in light of that framework, it's likely to be rather confusing.) In this article, I explore how the Scriptures portray God as intersecting history in a way that I can best describe as time-complicated: God acts in history in a paradoxical way that contradicts everything we can wrap our head around about how tense and actions work. Jesus also describes the kingdom of God using this time-complicated language: the kingdom of God has fully come, and yet the kingdom of God is fully coming right now, and yet the kingdom of God will fully come in the future.
This is the nature of the kingdom; it is something we will never be able to escape, and it is important to take that character seriously in how we wrestle with what Jesus says about the kingdom. If we do that, it becomes clear that what Jesus is discussing in Matthew 24-25 is not simply the conditions of the end of the world, it is the conditions of whenever the end of the age - the kingdom of God - begins to approach and break into the present. They are actually the signs of the kingdom that did come, the kingdom that is now coming, and the kingdom that will come.
Signs of the Kingdom that Came
To illustrate this point, let me point out a few fascinating ways that what Jesus articulates in this Olivet discourse are fulfilled in the Passion. They have to be if they are signs that the kingdom is drawing near, because the kingdom certainly broke into our world at the Cross!
- In Matthew 24:9, Jesus cites that believers will be put up to tribulation and death - exactly what Jesus suffers through.
- In Matthew 24:10, Jesus explains that people will fall away and betray one another. In the subsequent narrative, Peter falls away by betraying Jesus, and Judas betrays him.
- In Matthew 24:29, Jesus says that the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give it’s light, and that the powers of heaven will be shaken. Darkness fills the sky while Jesus hangs on the cross (Matthew 27:45), and you better believe the powers of heaven were shaken when Jesus took all authority back in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18)!
- In Matthew 24:30, Jesus says the world will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory (citing Daniel 7:13). It is no accident that Jesus says to the Council that from then on they will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven (Matthew 26:64).
- In Matthew 25:32-33, Jesus says he will separate the sheep from the goats, one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus is crucified between two criminals: one on the right, the other on the left (Luke 23:33). One of them reviles Jesus, the other repents and joins Jesus in paradise (Luke 23:43).
Are all of these signs fulfilled in the passion by accident? Certainly not! There is clear alignment here, and that makes sense, because what Jesus is saying in the Olivet Discourse is that as God’s inbreaking kingdom approaches our world, the way the powers of this world respond is through these signals. In the frantic attempt to hold on to some power they scramble in all these ways. These exact signs that precede the way that Jesus comes and the end of the age that breaks in through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. This is why Jesus calls the disciples to read the signs and know that something is right around the corner (Matthew 24:32-34) - the end did come in the crucifixion and the resurrection, and because the kingdom that has come is the kingdom that is presently coming, these same signs appear every time the kingdom draws near to break into our world.
A More Recent Example
God’s kingdom has come, and it is also coming. As it draws near, to break into our world, if we learn to read the signs of the times (literally signs of the kairos - the inbreaking moments of God), we can perceive that God is preparing a work in our time. The kingdom isn’t limited to just what came (the first coming), and what will come (the last coming), the kingdom is also now-coming, and as a result, these signs can be interpreted as meaningful without jumping to the full end-times conclusion.
Perhaps an interesting exercise might be to reflect on some of the interesting developments in the Church that followed another time of great turmoil - one of wars and rumors of wars for sure: World War II. Here are some of the ways the world experience God’s inbreaking kingdom right after the tragedy of the second world war:
- Billy Graham rose to international prominence in the late 1940s and had one of the most influential evangelistic ministries there ever has been: best estimates suggest he led more than 3 million people to Jesus through his ministry.
- A Healing Revival started in the late 1940s and ushered in a wave of healing ministry that profoundly affected the American church. Incredible revival ministries were birthed in that move of God.
- New archeological sources became available which resulted in the community of biblical scholarship being able to understand Jesus in his context in a way not possible before. This resulted in the revolution in biblical theology called Kingdom Theology.
These are just a few events that line up directly after the end of World War II. I’m sure there are more, but this is what I could piece together quickly (If you know of something that should be added, let me know!) Could it be that on a global scale, the powers of the world were working to sow as much devastation and chaos as possible before God’s world broke into ours in such a powerful and profound way? We know demons do have some sense of the impending move of God (Matthew 8:29).
Interpreting our Present Moment
And all of this brings us to our current events. How are we to think about the current state of the world, rife with political conflict (nation turning against nation), plague, the cooling of the church in the West (the love of many growing cold), increasing moral relativism (lawlessness increasing), and so on? I’ll tell you how I’m interpreting it: it sure looks to me like there is a coming at hand, and that the end of the age is heading towards our present reality. Do I know the specifics? No, I don’t! We can’t know the day or the hour (Matthew 24:36), but we can read the signs and know that it’s close (Matthew 24:32).
If this is true, how then shall we respond? Jesus gives three teaching points that frame our response:
The Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13)
Without going into great detail, the point of this parable is a warning to stay alert. Don’t let yourself get distracted from your focus being on what God is doing. Doubtless there will be plenty of opportunities in our chaotic times.
The Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30)
Again, without going into much detail, the point here is that times like this are when the Lord evaluates our faithfulness and promotes us. Many of us desire to be faithful with what we have so we can enter into more (Matthew 25:21). The comings of Jesus in when that happens. I’d bet Billy Graham and the leaders of the Healing Revival had some demonstrated faithfulness before the late 1940s.
The Separating of Sheep from Goats (Matthew 25:31-46)
The last point that Jesus makes is that these comings act as separating points in the kingdom of God. Jesus will divide against one another those who have walked with him and those who have not. He will appoint to each one the fruit of their ways: those who have been faithful to the Lord will receive a blessing of the life of eternity (Matthew 25:46), and those who have not will receive the other side of the balance.
Does all of this mean that we should take the conflict any less seriously on the natural level? Of course not! We need to pray for Ukraine and all who are affected by the war. In fact, this might be exactly what Jesus meant when he said that we are to bless the stranger by food, drink, clothing, and caretaking in prison (Matthew 25:35-40). Perhaps it is by caretaking those who are caught in the midst of the conflict caused by Jesus’ coming that we take care of him.
At the same time, this interpretation does load these events with spiritual significance, just not a significance that prompts me to fear or disengagement. Rather it prompts a call to faithfulness, to caretake for those suffering, and a looking to Jesus to bring his kingdom to our broken world.