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Jesus' Prophecy of Consummation of the Kingdom, Part 3: Don't Be Misled, My Coming Will Be Unmistakable

Series: Matthew

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Aug 8, 1999

Matthew 24:24-31

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If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Matthew, chapter 24. We've been for the last couple of weeks in this great passage in which Jesus sets forth His teaching about the end times and the second coming. In the first three verses of Matthew 24, we saw the two particular questions that the disciples had asked. Look at verse 3. It says, "Tell us when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?" And so in answer to these questions, the Lord Jesus Christ has set about giving this sermon to His disciples. It stretches all the way into Matthew 25, and we have looked at the first section together.

In verses 4 through 26, the Lord Jesus responds to the disciples primarily speaking with them about things that are going to be happening in Jerusalem in their lifetime. Things that are going to happen with regard to the destruction of the nation of Israel and of the temple. And things that they will see with their own eyes.

But here especially in verses 27 through 31, the Lord Jesus turns directly to the issue of His second coming and begins to speak. So let's hear God's holy and inspired word. And we'll begin in verse 23 today just to get the context.

Matthew 24:24-31

Our heavenly Father, we thank You for this your word. We thank you that you have revealed to us these truths about the coming of our Lord. We ask that by a due use, a diligent use of ordinary means as we study the word and that by the Spirit as we study this word, You would open our eyes to behold wonderful things from Your law. We ask, O Lord, that You would grip our hearts with these truths, and that we would long, more and more, for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.

According to the Lord Jesus it is vital that we as Christians watch for His coming; that we are ready for His coming; that we prepare for His coming. And so a logical question to enter into our minds is, "how does one go about watching for His coming? How is one prepared for His coming? What must a person do to be ready for the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ?" Much of what Jesus teaches in Matthew 24 and 25 is in answer just to those kinds of practical questions. In fact today, we are going to see that it's vital for our Christian living not only that we are watchful for the coming of Christ, but also that we know how to be watchful. And in the passage today we are going to see that in order to be watchful we must do at least 2 things. We must long for His coming. We must truly anticipate His coming. It must be an event which is significant on our horizon. It must be something that is part of our daily consciousness, a longing for the coming of our Lord. But also we see that we must trust completely in the truth of His word in regard to His coming. Our thinking about His coming must be ruled by the authority of His word. As He has explained His coming, so we must think about His coming and be prepared for His coming. I would like to look at these 2 issues with you today in this great passage. The passage divides easily enough into 2 parts.

If you look at verses 24-26, or if we include verse 23, verse 23-26 we see here Jesus giving a warning against deception. Now He has already said, in verses 4 through 26, He has already said that we need to be prepared to endure tribulation and trial; that we need to be ready to persevere; and He has already warned us not to be misled. But in this passage He is going to come back and reiterate this charge to us not to be deceived, not to be misled. That's what we see in verses 23-26. And then when you look at verses 27-31 here He turns our attention to the issue of His second coming. And in this section He answers the disciples’ question about His coming. He speaks of its nature, and of the timing of His return here in verses 27-31. He will continue to talk about these things, by the way, in the verses to come. But let's look at these 2 things together today.

I. Christians must be on guard against false Messiahs/Prophets

First if I could turn your attention to verses 24-26, these words here are warnings to the disciples about deception. And we learn here that all Christians - not just the disciples of Jesus day - but all Christians must be on guard against false messiahs and false prophets. Look at verse 24. Jesus says here to the disciples that false prophets will come. And He not only says that they will come, He says that they are going to do miracles. Jesus doesn't even qualify this by saying that they are going to be false miracles. He says, "false prophets will come and do signs and wonders. But don't be deceived by them." Jesus is saying even their miracles are not to be believed if they are against My word. What a profound assertion that is. By the way, that is something that comes up again in the book of revelation as john calls on us, especially in the last days, to trust in the word of Christ even over against the miracles of false prophets. And so Jesus here in Matthew 24:24 asserts the same thing. At the end of verse 24 there is a very interesting saying. He says, "False christs and false prophets will arise and show great signs and wonders so as to mislead, of possible, even the elect." Now that little phrase is Jesus' word of assurance to you. It's a reminder that God's chosen cannot be misled. "But wait a minute," you say, "Jesus has already told us not to be misled; to be on guard so that we would not be deceived. Why would He charge us not to be misled, and then tell us that it's not possible for God's chosen to be misled? Or imply that it's not possible for God's chosen to be misled?" How do we handle this? Well this is one of those glorious, little Calvinistic paradoxes that you find in Scripture from time to time, laid side by side with no apology.

There is first, Jesus’ assurance that it is not possible for His people to be snatched out of His hand. And secondly, there is His stern warning to His people that they be on guard and not be deceived or misled. Jesus puts those 2 things side by side and doesn't apologize or qualify either of them.

It is absolutely true that His people cannot be lost. It is also absolutely true that His people must be on guard against deception. How do you put those two things together? Well ultimately you will have to ask a few questions in heaven. But we could go at least this far. We can say that though it is true that God will not allow His people to fail to persevere, it is also true that the instrument - or that one of the instruments - that He uses by the work of the Holy Spirit to enable His people to persevere, is their diligence and watchfulness. That is the way that God determines to carry out His plan and decree, is through the use of means. And one of the means that He uses is our diligence.

Now, thank heavens, He also undergirds us with the Holy Spirit and many other divine uses and means in order to cause us to persevere, but the truth that God will hold us in the palm of His hand can never be used over against our responsibility to be watchful. Those two truths are complementary; not contradictory. Those two truths do not fight against or militate against one another. They, in fact, support one another. And notice how beautifully they minister to two kinds of Christians. In this place today there will be two tendencies. It will probably be represented in each of you. One of us has one of these tendencies generally stronger than the other one. Some of us struggle with assurance. And though we love the Lord Jesus Christ, and we read His word, and we follow in His ways, we wrestle with a sense of our security. This verse speaks to that sense of security when it says that or implies that it is not possible for God's people to be snatched away from him, even in the most trying of times. And so this verse brings comfort and security to those who struggle.

On the other hand there are those of us who have a tendency to complacency. And we can kind of sit back in our easy chair and rock along, and not be diligent in the commands of the Scripture. And this verse says to us, "Don't be misled. Don't be deceived. Be diligent. Be ready." And so God in one little verse speaks to both of those tendencies amongst Christians, and calls on us to be secure and assured, but to also be faithful in preparing.

Now notice in verse 25 that Jesus reiterates to His disciples that He has told them ahead of time that false prophets and false messiahs are going to come. That not only prepares His disciples for the trials that they were going to face in the days of the fall of Jerusalem, and it not only prepares us for the false prophets we face, but it also gives us confidence in Christ’s word. He told us ahead of time. Imagine Jesus' disciples at the fall of Jerusalem if He had not told them anything about what was going to happen. Can you imagine them scratching their heads and saying, "why didn't Jesus tell us this was going to happen?" But they didn't have to do that because Jesus had told them what was going to happen. And so they could say, "you know, even as difficult and as horrifying as these events are, they are exactly what Jesus said was going to happen. And so our confidence in the word of Christ is increased as we see what He says here in verses 24-26.

And then again, He repeats in verse 26 that we are not to go out if someone comes along and says, "The messiah is out in the wilderness," Don't go there. And if someone comes along and says, "Well the Messiah is in this secret room. Let's go there." He said, "Don't go." Why? Because, He says, His coming is going to be unmistakable and anyone who teaches a secret coming of the Messiah is teaching directly against the Lord Jesus Christ. There is no such thing as a secret coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. He says, "Don't be duped by those who say that the Messiah is coming in secret." Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact verses 27-31 confirm that great message; that Jesus’ coming is going to be open and unmistakable.

Now this whole passage reminds us that as Christians we must be cautiously and wisely and biblically watchful for Christ’s coming. How is that we can be watchful for Christ’s coming? Does that mean that we should be looking for signs? That's not what Jesus stresses in verses 4 through 14, is it? He says that all these things will be fulfilled in this generation. So if it is not looking for signs, what does it mean to be watchful? Jesus tells us in the passage to be watchful means to trust in His word; to trust in His word. That is that we are to have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and in His word, and we are to have faith in Christ and His word. Both halves of those sentences are important. Faith and Christ’s word, those are the two things we need to be watchful. That is, all our thinking about the second coming is going to be ordered by what? By our experience? No. By our hunches? No. By the signs we see? No. But by Christ’s word. And it is essential if we are going to be watchful that we be trusting, that we be faithfully believing in the word which Christ has given us here in the Scripture. That's how a Christian prepares to be watchful for Christ’s coming. We are kept by faith in God's word.

Now Jesus’ words served as important counsel for His immediate circle of disciples, and all of that generation that was going to go through the adversity and the persecution of the fall of Jerusalem. But Jesus' words here are no less applicable to us. We must be ready to trust in His word even now. The time in between the advents of the Lord Jesus Christ is characterized by testing and tribulation. Not triumph, not ultimate rest. The ultimate rest is still to come. All of us have trials to endure here. And the Lord Jesus Christ is telling us we must be ready to trust in His word even more than our senses in this time of trial and tribulation. And that is a very practical word. Because when people get in a pinch in the midst of a trial, they tend to grasp at straws. They will grasp at anything to find help and hope. And the Lord Jesus Christ is saying to His disciples, "You're going to go through trials, so before you get there, you have got to have faith in Me, and you have got to anchor your belief in My word, or otherwise you'll grasp at straws in your time of trial."

Now while we were in Peru, one of the ministers shared with us a very sad story about a young man with whom he had gone to seminary. This young man was evangelical, had grown up in a Bible-believing church, and was preparing for the gospel ministry, and was very involved in many Christian organizations, and involved in the pro-life movement. And he found himself in prison in Boston. And he was visited by a minister of a church which does not believe the gospel. But that personal visit in his time of trial was profoundly moving and effecting. And he eventually apostatized from the faith and went following after this minister and this other church, which was no church, which did not preach the gospel. He fell away, as it were, from his profession of faith, and it was largely because in a time of trial, he had been personally ministered to by this individual. He did not anchor his hope in God's word. But he allowed his hope to be placed in a person and in a system, and ultimately into a church which was not a church. What a sad story!

And it's so interesting to me that John Calvin gives the same warning against that same kind of thing in his commentary on Matthew. He says, "Nothing is more deadly for men who do not know which way to turn in their adversity than to be deceived." And therefore we must anchor our belief and our hope in what? In our circumstances? No. But in Christ and His word. And so His words are profoundly practical for us today. All of us are going to be called to go through deep waters at one time or another. You may be there now. Christ is saying, "Anchor your hope in My word, and don't be deceived by those who will mislead."

II. Christians must take note of Jesus’ teaching about His coming.

Then in verses 27-31, He goes on to speak of His second coming. And we learn here that Christians must take note of Jesus' teaching about His coming. If we're to be watchful for His coming, then we need to know what Jesus says about His coming, and we must begin to cultivate biblical desires and affections for His coming. In verse 27 He says, in contrast to the false prophets and false messiahs, of verse 26, who say that the coming is going to be secret, notice they say, "we need to go out into the wilderness because the messiah is there." Jesus says, "no, no, no." And they say "well we need to go into this inner room because the messiah is there." And Jesus says, "no, no, no." Why? Because Jesus says, it is impossible that the Messiah can come and you not know it. So if somebody has to come to you and say, "You missed it. The messiah is out in the wilderness." He's wrong. Because, why? Verses 27 and 28 tell you.

There are two illustrations that Jesus gives. First His coming is going to be like lightening. Have you ever watched a thunderstorm pass through on a summer evening in Mississippi? You can't miss the lightening. The lightning is obvious. Jesus is saying, "My coming is going to be sudden, and My revelation is going to be bright and unmistakable as lightning flashing across the sky from one horizon to another." It's unmistakable. Then He gives another illustration, an earthy illustration. Many of us, if you have driven down a country road have seen the vultures circling over things that have been left behind, which we will not go into a description of. And the Lord Jesus says that even as the vultures gather around carrion so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. In other words, just like the vultures don't miss it when there is carrion on the road, and just like you can't mistake the fact that they're there circling for their pray, so also the coming of the Son of Man will be. In other words, it's obvious. It can't be missed. The vultures could not possibly miss their opportunity for a feast. So also, you could not possibly miss the coming of the son of man. And so this is another direct indication of the unmistakable character of Jesus coming.

Now verses 29 and 30 are more difficult. And they have provoked a lot of debate. The difficult words are found in the very first phrase of verse 29. Let's look at them. There we read, "Immediately after the tribulation of those days, the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its light, the stars will fall from the sky, the powers of heaven will be shaken, and the sign of the son of man will appear in the sky. All the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with great power and glory."

Look again at those first words of verse 29, "Immediately after the tribulation of those days." Now here's the problem. Jesus has been talking about the tribulation of Jerusalem. He has spoken about a tribulation which is going to occur in that generation. And then He says, "Immediately after those days of tribulation, I am going to come again." And that has provoked various responses. The liberals pick up this passage, and they say, "Humph. Jesus thought He was coming again soon after the fall of Jerusalem. But He didn't. And so He was wrong." That's what the liberals say. Now we know that they are wrong because they contradict the Lord Jesus Christ. So let's x that one off and move on to the next interpretation.

Heretics come to this passage and they say, "Jesus said that He was coming again soon after the destruction of Jerusalem and the tribulation of those days. And so He must have. But since not everybody seems to be certain about it, it must have been some sort of a secret coming, a spiritual coming. Yeah. That's it. It was a spiritual coming in AD 70 or so." But what did Jesus just say about the unmistakability of His coming? Oh, no, no, no. We can x that one off the list. And so it is very clear what Jesus is saying here is that, not that He thought He was coming again in a few weeks or months and didn't, but that in consistency with everything He said from verses 4 on, that the tribulation of the fall of Jerusalem is not equivalent to the tribulation of "those days." That is, there will be the initial expression of this tribulation in the days of the fall of Jerusalem, but that there will be a total time of trial and tribulation in between the advents. And after that time, after that whole interadventual period, then He will come again.

Look at these words together. First let's look at "those days" in verse 29. What does mean when He says, "Immediately after those days?" Does "those days" refer to the destruction of Jerusalem? Is this saying that Jesus will come immediately after Jerusalem’s fall? No. So what does it mean? "Those days" refers to the entire period of the time between the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. "Those days" has reference to the whole period between His comings. Once you understand that, the word "immediately" does not give you any problem. Once you understand what "those days" refers to, "immediately" is no longer difficult. Now this "immediately," this word, "immediately," this concept, "immediately," or the imminence of Christ is very important for the living of the Christian life.

R. A. Torrey has said, "The imminent return of our Lord is the great biblical argument for a pure, unselfish, devoted, unworldly, active life of service." You remember the disciples were expecting, what to happen? They were expecting Jerusalem to fall, Christ to come again, and then what? Then they would reign with Christ. They would judge the nations. They would sit on thrones. And that's why James and John were jockeying to sit at the right hand of Christ. Because they thought that they were in for some ruling. They were in for some crowns. And what's Jesus saying? Not only is the end, "the end," to be distinguished from the fall of Jerusalem, but in between the whole time of my first and My second coming, you will not be reigning in victory. You will be undergoing persecution for My sake. And so the way that you will express your ministry for me on earth is not in sitting and judging nations now. That will come later. Now you will suffer for my sake." And so He is completely changing the disciples' understanding of what they're about to face. And in so doing is preparing them to be faithful until He comes again.

Notice again in verses 29 and 30, these incredible things which accompany the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and just add again to the fact that His coming will be unmistakable. He tells us in verse 29 that when He comes the sun will be dark, and the moon will not give its light, the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of heaven will be shaken. Now these very descriptions are mind bending. You can't even begin to imagine what this means for the whole cosmos.

Let me just mention two things however. This language is drawn directly out of the Old Testament prophets. It occurs over and over again in the writings of the prophets. And it is also drawn out of the book of Genesis. What were the first creations of God that were given rule over other parts of the creation? Genesis 1 verses 16 through 18, "the sun, the moon and the stars." What does this passage say? It is at least saying this: that when Christ comes again the rule of the sun and the moon are going to be set aside and displaced in order to show that all things have been put under His authority. The book of Revelation mentions this as well. You remember it tells us that in the new heavens and the new earth, there is no sun because there is no need for light except for the Lord Jesus Christ. What is God doing? He is showing the absolute reign and authority of the Lord Jesus Christ. There is nothing in creation that He needs to reign and to rule. Everything is placed under His feet even the cycle of night and day provided by the sun and moon. It is awesome expression of the totality of the power and the rule and the sovereignty of the Lord Jesus Christ. And of course, you can't miss this thing. When the sun and the moon are darkened, you won't miss it. So His coming will be unmistakable.

We see of course in verse 30 that Jesus makes it clear that the sign of the coming of the Son of Man is the coming of the Son of Man. The Son of Man's coming is the sign of His coming. It will result, we are told, in the mourning of sinners. The sinners who have not trusted in the Lord Jesus Christ will mourn because they have not embraced Him.

And in verse 31, we are told that it will result in joy and triumph for all those who trust in Him because they are going to be gathered by the angels. And again verse 31 alludes to Old Testament teachings of the prophets and mentions the sounding of the trumpets so that Christ’s second coming is not only going to be seen, it is going to be heard by everyone. And so all those who are God's children will be gathered to Christ. And this is another word of assurance in a time of cataclysm and a time of crises God's people can be confident and secure because the the Lord Jesus will send His ministering angels to gather up all His people.

Now Christians must look for and long for that coming in accordance with Christ’s word. Alexander McClaren once said, "The primitive church thought a great deal more about the coming of Christ than it did about death." I wonder if that can be said of us. I wonder if we think more about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ than we think about our own deaths. As we get older, and as we begin to think about death in general and in particular in our own experience, I wonder if that's true of us, that we think more about His coming than about death. This coming of the Lord Jesus Christ is something that God calls upon us to cultivate in our hearts, an affection for, a desire for. And so Jesus teaches about it in His word.

Let's review then what we've seen in this passage. In verse 23 Jesus says, "Don't be fooled by false messiahs." In verse 25 Jesus warns us ahead of time in order to strengthen our confidence in His word, and to prepare us for the coming of these false messiahs. In verse 26 Jesus tells us that His coming will not be in private. It will not be concealed from the general population. In verse 27 Jesus makes it clear that His coming is going to be sudden and unmistakable. In verse 28 He tells us that it is no more possible to miss His coming than for vultures to miss carrion, or for us to miss the vultures circling. In verse 29 He tells us that His coming will occur only after much tribulation, and it will be accompanied by a transformation of the world; the darkening of the sun and of the moon and of the stars. And then in verse 31 we read that His coming will be heard as well as it is seen, and it will be a great day of triumph for His people who will be gathered to him. This is the clear teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ, and it's a beautiful summarization of this passage found in the back of your hymnals.

If you will turn with me to page 687 and 688 in your hymnals. And look especially at the third section of our Westminster confession in its chapter on the last judgment as it beautifully summarizes this passage: "As Christ would have us to be certainly persuaded that there shall be a day of judgment, both to deter all men from sin; and for the greater consolation of the godly in their adversity; so will He have that day unknown to men, that they may shake off all carnal security, and be always watchful, because they know not at what hour the Lord may come; and may ever be prepared to say, come Lord Jesus, come quickly, amen." Let us pray.

O Lord, we do desire by the Holy Spirit to say in our hearts, "Come Lord Jesus, come quickly." We ask, O Lord, that this would be a reality for us individually and as a congregation. That our desire would be for the coming of our Savior. And this we ask in His name. Amen.

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