MMC & me
I have no doubt that you have already had a guess at the title above. Perhaps you have guessed it straight away. Maybe it took a little while. Could you still be wondering? Would it help if I were to tell you the MMC actually stands for Roman numerals - in particular when Roman numerals represent years and decades and centuries and, you guessed it, thousands of years. That's where MMC represents the 21st century, the time upon which threshold we stand.
At the time of Matthew writing the words of what we know now as the twenty-fourth chapter of his gospel, MMC would have seemed light years away. In fact, they were not even familiar with the system of time that has given us the 21st century. For while our time has been dated from when it was believed Jesus Christ was born, it did not come into actual use until the early sixth century when a certain Dionysius Exiguus (Denis the Small or Insignificant), a monk and astronomer from Scythia, now south-west Russia, decided that a new calendar was needed. While compiling a table of dates for Easter he concluded that it made more sense to count the years from the birth of the Christian Church's founder than from the start of the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, as had been the rule.
His system of Anno Domino (AD: “In the year of our Lord”) failed to catch on at first and was rescued from obscurity two centuries later by the venerable Bede. In terms of everyday use this custom of naming years in the Christian era came into common use in ecclesiastical circles in the Middle Ages, but wasn't adopted for civil use until much later.
So the approach of the year 1000 caused little fuss among the populace, who were still counting time in terms of the reigns of kings and emperors. In the world outside of Europe there were even more diverse systems. Today there are still about 40 other calendars in use around the world, all beginning with different epochs and with the start of the year occurring at different times.
This all puts the millennial hype we have had of late in a different light. For while there may have been legitimate concerns over the possible implications of the infamous Y2K computer melt-down, to then turn this into the great show-down before the Lord's second coming is quite unwarranted. In fact, it is quite unscriptural.
What was expected then
We can glean from the general response of the disciples to Jesus, before Matthew 24, that they had a definite view of what lay ahead in time. There is one phrase they kept saying, in one way or another, “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom at this time?” This was part of a general expectation of the imminent dawn of the Messianic age - a time when the promised Messiah would physically deliver Israel and make Jerusalem the centre of a world-wide empire which would never end.
If there was one of the gospel writers who particularly focused on this Messiah and His rule it was Matthew. Here was a Jew writing to Jews. Right from the beginning of his gospel he is compiling all the relevant facts so that there could be no doubt that the life and times of the Lord Jesus Christ added up to all that had been promised. In chapter 1 Matthew had clearly enunciated Christ's royal lineage; and at the gospel's end, chapter 28, he has the King's own declaration of His royal right to rule. In-between the two he develops, in an unfolding way, the preparation for this King; the presentation of the Kingdom by this King; and the preaching about the Kingdom from this King. It all reaches its zenith in the greatest victory by this King - the death of Jesus Christ upon the cross.
Matthew is clear about the nature of this Kingdom - a Kingdom which is quite out of this world yet very much rooted in it. Even the parables Jesus speaks, while they are obviously about what He is working out in this world, often begin, “The kingdom of heaven is like...”.
There is a distinct spiritual element in the gospel. This Kingdom does not come as a physical triumph over the secular powers. There will be no rebellion against the occupying power of Rome. Jesus is even quoted as recognising Rome's secular authority in the reply to the Herodians and Pharisees using the picture on an everyday coin (Matt.22:15ff).
At the time of when Matthew 24 actually occurred, this proper understanding by the apostles was yet future. They were still small town boys caught up in the phenomenal excitement of being with this amazing man, knowing that He was certainly someone quite different and believing in a very basic way that He is who He said He is - bar one. Still, it was a faith which had many gaps. It would take the empowering of Christ upon His resurrection which would change them radically forever. Even, now, during the week before Christ's death, a time their Master had spoken clearly about, they were still a little at sea. Verse 1 shows a sense of this wonderment of the disciples as they gaze upon how huge the temple is. The temple which Herod restored was the second and largest of the two temples that were on this sight. It took ten years of intensive work from 19 - 9 BC, and work continued until its completion in AD 64. Among those labouring on this rebuilding were one thousand priests especially trained as masons to build the shrine. A part of this temple's wall still stands today, known commonly as `the wailing wall'.
The Already and the Not Yet
It was the custom of Jesus to retire for the evening to the Mount of Olives after having spent the day teaching in the temple. Here He was able to be with His disciples and especially with His Father in prayer. It was the name of this hill which gives us the title, `The Olivet Discourse'. Location wise, this hill faced the temple, so that one could see Jerusalem over the Kidron valley. In these almost poetic words of William Hendriksen, “We can imagine how, looking across the valley, a truly fascinating view disclosed itself to the eyes of the little company. There was the roof of the temple bathed in a sea of golden glory. There were those beautiful terraced courts and also those cloisters of snowy marble which seemed to shine and sparkle in the light of the setting sun. And then to think that all this glory was about to perish! The minds of the disciples reeled and staggered when they pondered that mysterious and awesome prediction.”
While Herod was certainly no genuine Jew, and the rabbinic literature is critical toward him, they yet had to all agree upon the beauty of this temple. As one of them states, “He who never saw Herod's edifice has never in his life seen a beautiful building.”
A building this majestic and inspiring would have anyone wondering what Jesus was going on about by predicting its total destruction. So the question which is then asked by four of the disciples, who acted for all of them (Mark 13:3), is the type of question anyone would ask.
It is this question which for them looked at what the Lord said as relating to one particular time, but which we see today as actually having two distinct historical parts. Here is the question Peter, James, John and Andrew asked of the Lord: “Tell us, when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (v3)
To illustrate the difference between what they saw and what we see here is a diagram:
This would be something the disciples began to realise themselves later, particularly after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.. Yet even before Jerusalem's fall, they would know this with the difference between Christ's first and second comings.
The distinction between the fall of Jerusalem some 40 years later and the Lord's second coming at a later time still is what the majority of commentators are agreed upon. Throughout the rest of Matthew 24 and 25 it is recognised that there are two different historical epochs in view. To put it in our perspective - this is the difference between the already and the not yet. For `already' Christ has come the first time and He has fulfilled all that His Father set Him to do on His people's behalf, and this included the immediate destruction of the temple as a sign of the new covenantal age - the age when Jeremiah's prophecy of the time when the LORD's people would have the law in their minds and written on their hearts meant that God's temple would now be the Holy Spirit in the hearts of His people. But `not yet' had all these signs taken place as the Lord foretold that they would.
Pretext or Context?
It will be tempting, particularly for those of us from a western european mindset, to become caught up in the different eschatological views at this point. There is even one which believes that since the destruction of Jerusalem has taken place the second coming itself has already taken place. There's no room for a `Not Yet' in that view.
What we need to keep in focus, however, is the purpose of the Lord Jesus in teaching this extended discourse at this time. For extended it certainly is. Beyond the Book of Revelation itself, this is the longest piece of biblical teaching on the last times. We do well to remember that in these present times. We who can so much love our facts and figures easily try to equate other times by this present time.
But His time is surely coming and is certainly a lot closer now than nearly two thousand years ago when the early New Testament Church took it seriously every day of their lives!
What can this mean for us today - in the light of what it meant for them then? That is what we'll develop further in studying the discourse of our Lord itself.