Updated: Mar 26, 2021
We don’t know when Jesus is coming back, but we know that He is.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Matthew 24:36-51
People worry a lot about “tomorrow”. And yes there is coming a day when Jesus returns and ends history and sends Christians to everlasting life and non-Christians to everlasting torment. But we don’t know when that day is coming. What do we want Jesus to find us doing when He does come back?
“Now concerning that day and hour no one knows—neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son—except the Father only." Matthew 24:36
[Editor's note: this Bible study supplement started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website.]
Getting Started: Things to Think About
“The Sky Is Falling!” and Other Great Ways to Start a Friendly Conversation. You have to be pretty careful with this idea because it can spin out of control if you let it. We have all heard a number of doomsdayers. Even though they’re not new, I feel like I’m hearing more “it’s the end of the world as we know it” rants than usual. Now, it’s not just nuclear apocalypse and worldwide pandemic and meteors. Now, we’ve added the zombie apocalypse, robot overlords, alien invasion, and cloning. Lots and lots of creative ways for humans to be utterly destroyed. And lots of people turn to faith for answers, but some of the answers I see out there are awful! So here’s the thing to ask your class: do you guys ever think about the end of the world? Is there anything is particular that makes you nervous? Are there any questions that stick in your mind? The one that keeps me somewhat awake at night is “just how long is God going to let us go before He blows the whistle?” Just how bad are things going to get? Let your class express some of their fears. The answer that Jesus gives us is not the answer that a lot of these other people give us. Jesus says that there are some things we are not supposed to know—like when the world will end—because we’re not equipped to handle that kind of knowledge. We are supposed to trust God.
Would You Want to Know the Future? Science Fiction is filled with stories about “knowing the future”, from the silly (Back to the Future) to the profound (2016 film Arrival), and that idea goes all the way back to ancient mythology. Here’s how to start: if you could know the future, would you really want to? Realize that it would mean knowing when and how you would die (or worse, your family). And then you wonder: could you change it? But if you could change it, that would mean you didn’t really know the future! I think not knowing the future gives us hope; knowing the future would make us fatalists. And that’s why God doesn’t tell us any more of the future than is absolutely necessary. There are lots of ways you could take a discussion about the price of knowing the future. But don’t let it get depressing!
[Editor's Note: I recently read the Chinese sci-fi series The Three Body Problem which combines both of these concepts, but from a secular Chinese perspective. It is extremely interesting. For the purposes of this discussion, it includes the following scenario: how would humans respond if they were given irrefutable evidence that aliens would arrive on Earth in 400 years? We don't know their intentions; we just know when they will arrive.]
The Olivet Discourse
I have done so much work on this passage that I don’t even know where to begin. So much has been argued about that has made people unnecessarily nervous. It is the last major discourse in Matthew, which means that Jesus wanted to make sure He taught His disciples about the end of time, but not until they understood what was really important. The Mount of Olives, where Jesus said these things, is a few hundred feet in elevation above the Temple Mount, so you would have a great view of it while speaking. You really have to go through the entire sermon for our specific passage to make sense, and I have a different take than your leader guide, so let me give you my summary of Matthew 24/25.
This whole passage is set up by the disciples’ question: “When will the Temple be destroyed? What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (24:3). Most important for understanding these chapters: the disciples thought they were asking about one great big event, but it’s actually a series of events. The Sunday School lesson picks up in verse 36, which means you skip a lot of the really strange references. In case you are asked about them, I’ll give you a handout of my entire end-times philosophy (way more than you could cover in a class)—just for your personal curiosity! But an outline of the whole discourse helps me make sense of it:
24:4-14 Signs before the end (“immediately” before?)
Birth pains: wars, famines, earthquakes
Persecution and apostasy
Increase of wickedness
Worldwide spread of the gospel
24:15-28 Prime example of a deceptive sign: the fall of Jerusalem
The greatest distress of history
Jews will expect Messiah’s return
Many false prophets will deceive
BUT no one will mistake Christ’s return
Vv. 22-28 apply both to this example and the entire age
24:29-31 Signs of the end (as a parenthetical aside)
Jesus riding through the clouds
Angels gathering the elect (cf. 1 Thess 4:17)
24:32-44 Lesson to be learned
When “these things” (vv. 4-28) happen, the time is near
“These things” will all happen in that generation
Comparison: the day of Noah; they knew yet they didn’t
Therefore, we must always be ready for the end.
24:45-25:46 Illustrations of the Lesson
The Faithful and Wicked Servants: the master came back unexpectedly; the emphasis is on the servants’ behavior when the master returns
The Wise and Foolish Virgins: the bridegroom was late in his coming; the emphasis is on how prepared the virgins were for the bridegroom’s lateness
The Wise and Foolish Servants: the master came back right on time after a very long time; the emphasis is on what happened while he was gone
The Sheep and the Goats: not about length of time at all but the sort of behavior that will be rewarded and punished when Jesus returns.
Everything about this discourse is designed to tell us that we don’t know when Jesus will return. And even more than that, there are a lot of people out there who will try to predict when Jesus is returning, but they’re all wrong. To make a long story short about all of the debated verses in this passage, Jesus is simply saying this: by the time you (the disciples) die, every one of the signs of My return (including the fall of Jerusalem) will have already taken place. Basically, ever since John wrote his Gospel and the Revelation, we have been living in the end of time. Jesus could come back at any moment. And the way I explain the Revelation in my handout is thus: all of these huge events going on in the world today could turn out to be fulfillments of Revelation. Or not. We won’t know until Jesus comes back because we can’t know. Even the signs aren’t entirely trustworthy because they are continuous from the first century on; we are to take them seriously but should not lose our minds over them. The best summary of this I’ve ever heard is “We are to prepare as if Jesus is coming back in 1000 years but live as if He is coming back tomorrow.” I do believe that is the main point Jesus has in all of these obscure and frightening words about the Temple and the Ark and the end of time. Jesus will come back. It will matter if we’ve listened to Him and obeyed Him. And I get the sense that there will be some kind of reward in addition to salvation itself for those who have really given their all to Jesus.
Focus: End Time Passages
I cover these in the separate handout I’m sending you, but in case you’re stubborn and like to do all that research yourself, here is a list of all of the passages you want to take into consideration when trying to figure out what the Bible says about the end of time:
John 5:28-29 / 11:24-26
1 Corinthians 15
1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11
2 Thessalonians 2
2 Peter 2-3
The entire book of Revelation
Rev 1-5 Introduction
Rev 6-9 The Seven Seal Judgments
Rev 8-11 The Seven Trumpet Judgments
Rev 12-14 The Seven Signs
Rev 15-16 The Seven Bowl Judgments
Rev 17-19 The Fall of Babylon
Rev 20.1 The Millennium
Rev 20.2 The Final Battle
Rev 21-22 The New Earth
Obviously you can’t cover that in one class. I’m not really sure how much you even want to try! All of the study I’ve done on this—the best I can say is that God has a plan for Jesus to return. Whenever it happens is when it’s supposed to happen. And whatever I think about how and when I would like it to happen is completely irrelevant. Now, I do think the various prophecies of the Bible are coherent. Those skeptics who try to say that the Bible contradicts itself are wrong. The fulfillment of prophecy is not exactly “black and white” but is actually a very complicated idea.
Part 1: Be Reminded (Matthew 24:36-41)
“Now concerning that day and hour no one knows—neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son—except the Father only. As the days of Noah were, so the coming of the Son of Man will be. For in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah boarded the ark. They didn’t know until the flood came and swept them all away. So this is the way the coming of the Son of Man will be: Then two men will be in the field: one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill: one will be taken and one left.”
Don’t get sidetracked on this, but do not let people use this verse to defend the "Left Behind" idea of a Rapture. What happened to the people who were taken away outside the ark? Bad things, man. It is not good to be taken in this context. Incidentally, this is also why I believe in a literal ark. Otherwise, why would Jesus use this as an illustration? Here Jesus’ point: in Noah’s day, everybody around him watched him build the ark and preach warnings to them, but they ignored him. Therefore, when the rains came, they had no one to blame but themselves. They knew, but they didn’t believe. This puts the responsibility squarely on the individual. Everybody knows that the earth won’t be here forever; even atheists know that the sun will blow up one day. The story of the ark reminds us that people, even when they see the signs very clearly, will ignore doom and go about their lives right up to the moment they are taken away in judgment. Yikes!
For kids, maybe the way to illustrate this is a ball game of some kind where you can’t see the clock. Maybe the other is winning and you don’t know how much time is left! No matter what anybody says or thinks, when Jesus comes back (and He will come back), His team wins automatically. Which team are you on?
Aside: Did Jesus Not Know???
This bothers some people. How could Jesus not know something and still be God? Well, this is an example of what Paul called “emptying Himself” (Phil 2:7), where Jesus willingly allowed the limitations of being truly human to have an impact. God the Son trusted God the Father to the extent that He did not have to know the whole plan. Does He know the plan now that He’s seated in heaven? I think so.
Bonus Aside: Is This Salvation by Works?
I’ve heard quite a few people try to use these parables to prove that Jesus taught salvation by works. In other words, it mattered what you were doing when Jesus came back. That is an example of pushing a parable too far. What did Jesus say? “If you love Me, you will obey my commands” (John 14). That doesn’t mean we will never fail or sin. What if Jesus comes back right when we’re sinning???!? NOOOO!!!! Look, that is all a paranoia of legalism, and then salvation becomes a matter of luck. Will Jesus come back when you are sinning or doing something virtuous? That’s not how salvation works. True believers will carry out the work of God with a thankful and humble heart. Fake believers won’t. More often than not, our behavior is a direct reflection of our heart, and that is really what Jesus is worried about. This parable in our passage is about a “faithful and wise” vs. a “wicked” servant. Those are matters of the heart out of which the mouth speaks, the mind makes decisions, and the hands act. God sees through our actions to our hearts, and that’s where salvation is known.
Part 2: Be Alert (Matthew 24:42-44)
Therefore be alert, since you don’t know what day your Lord is coming. But know this: If the homeowner had known what time the thief was coming, he would have stayed alert and not let his house be broken into. This is why you also must be ready, because the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.
You might wonder: why is Jesus so insistent on being alert if He’s not coming back for hundreds of generations? Well, (1) Jesus didn’t "know" that. And (2) have you ever gotten a little bit lazy when you were supposed to be really serious about something? Like study for a test? When you slack off for just a little bit, bad things usually follow. Can you imagine if everybody at the fire department fell asleep? Or everybody at the 9-11 call center? We need them to be alert for when that emergency call comes in, whenever it is! We must be ready and alert at all times.
Get the imagery, though. Jesus is comparing Himself to a thief, right? Is the coming of a thief good or bad? It’s bad. It’s always bad. But I thought we want Jesus to return!? Well, we do. But there are a lot of people who don’t, namely everyone who hasn’t acknowledged Him as Lord and God. Jesus isn’t talking about a pickpocket here but someone who breaks into your home and takes what is most precious to you. (The word for “broken into” literally means “dug through”; walls in that context were often mud bricks; thieves literally dug through a wall to break into.) In other words, He’s being very serious. How do you prevent your home from being robbed? Today, we have home security systems that are electronically monitored 24 hours a day. This is not to say that anyone can prevent Jesus from doing anything (right?) but the point is about being alert.
I think the “thief” image might still be the best way to illustrate Jesus’ point. That could be scary, so be careful! But ask your class about all of the things we do to keep our possessions safe from thieves. Should we not be just as worried about our souls?
Part 3: Be Faithful (Matthew 24:45-47)
“Who then is a faithful and sensible slave, whom his master has put in charge of his household, to give them food at the proper time? That slave whose master finds him working when he comes will be rewarded. I assure you: He will put him in charge of all his possessions.
Take a look at my outline of these last 4 illustrations. Each one has a slightly different but compatible point. This one is about sticking to it. Are you willing to serve Jesus your whole life without slacking off? Even when you get old and tired? We don’t know when Jesus is coming back, but when He does, I sure hope He finds us doing the right things. This is how you apply this: think about the argument you/we have. They can be church arguments or family arguments or internal arguments. If Jesus were coming back next week, would that change the way you approach your argument? Would you even care about some of the arguments you’re having? I bet it would. I know that some of the things I really fuss about wouldn’t seem very important. In other words, if Jesus were to come back during a church business meeting, what would we want Him to hear us discussing?
Aside: Rewards in Heaven
I think you have to be really careful with this topic. Some people can be offended simply by bringing it up. But the very next passage in Matthew gives the impression that there are rewards in heaven for those who have “made the most” out of their lives. The parallel story in Luke 19 says that the master gave each man a number of cities commensurate with the number of talents gained. I think that fits right in line with Jesus’ larger theology. BUT—what does any of that mean? How can we measure what “return on investment” we’ve made for Jesus? We can’t. For that matter, what is a reward in heaven? What is infinity+1? In other words, if there are rewards in heaven, the discussion is basically academic. But I also think it’s pastoral. I know people who have been given very little in life (physical disabilities, family in poverty) and have worked very hard to bring Jesus glory but with very little visible result. I earnestly pray that those people get a “better heaven”, whatever that means, than I do (who have been given so many blessings in this life). And I don’t have a problem with that.
Part 4: Be Warned (Matthew 24:48-51)
But if that wicked slave says in his heart, ‘My master is delayed,’ and starts to beat his fellow slaves, and eats and drinks with drunkards, that slave’s master will come on a day he does not expect and at an hour he does not know. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
The key to this whole passage is a verse we’ve already covered: “Be alert, since you don’t know what day your Lord is coming.” Human beings are prone to a great folly—”I can do that tomorrow.” What good will it do you to do something tomorrow that you need to do today? People can say “I’ll see the signs; I’ll get ready when it’s time to get ready.” Well, the signs are all around us now! That’s the whole point! And this is an example of a situation where being “close” doesn’t help. What if you’re just one day late in preparing for that hurricane, or that volcano eruption? Will that make any difference if you were just one day off or a month off? No. You weren’t ready, and you will have to pay the price for it.
To make this story more memorable to His disciples, Jesus pushes the behavior of the wicked servant to an extreme, but that isn’t necessary. Are you doing what Jesus told you to do or not? If you aren’t, you may as well be abusing people and getting drunk, because that’s how God will see it. Those people will be sent somewhere where there is torment (physical? emotional?). In other words, we will be held accountable for our lives. No one “gets away” with anything. The primary matter will be what we’ve done with Jesus. But then, we are assured that God cares what we’ve done with the gifts (our spiritual gifts and our natural talents) He has given us. Are we making the most of our lives? But make sure that every Christian in your class knows that Jesus’ return is a good thing, something we can celebrate and pray for!
Closing Thoughts: We Are Not Living in the Worst Days Ever
When people talk about “how bad” things are today, I want to slap some sense into them. Things are rough, but we have no comprehension of true worldwide suffering as in years past. Consider these events and tell me that every generation in history hasn’t had the right to say that Jesus is coming back at any moment!
Year Death toll Event
160s 5M Smallpox in Italy
200s 37M War in China
600s Half of Europe Bubonic plague
1100s 2M Crusades
1200s 35M Mongol conquest of Europe
1300s 75M Black death (while the Hundred Years’ War was on)
1556 830,000 Earthquake in China
1500s+ 55M European conquest of Americas
1600s 25M War in China
1600s 6M Thirty Years’ War
1800s 5M Napoleon’s wars
1800s 38M Cholera, British Empire
1800s countless Tuberculosis
1850s 42M War in China, Plague in India
1900s 300M+ Smallpox, worldwide*
1910s 38M World War I and Russian Civil War
1918 50M Spanish Flu, worldwide
1931 More than 1M Floods in China
1940s 93M World War II and Holocaust