Prompted by being asked, Jesus informed His followers of would be the signs indicating His return, Judgement Day, and the end of the world. There would be false Messiahs, wars, and disasters. His disciples would become witnesses to the world. The most horrendous in all of history, before or after, would occur; the Siege of Jerusalem. Then He would return with great power, and great judgement on all mankind, so they had better be on guard.
The End on Hold
As we saw in the previous series, the implication of Jesus' prophesies about the end of the world was that it would be soon after the Siege of Jerusalem. Quite interestingly, that is about all Mark has to say about timing, but Matthew and Luke appear to emphasize there being some delay before Jesus would reappear. Luke scattered these delay-references throughout his Gospel, but Matthew consolidated his chosen delay-references for us within the section we are studying now.
It started back in the last chapter. You may remember from the previous study, in Matthew 24:45-51, and much earlier in the Luke 12:42-46 parallel, Jesus gave a parable comparing wise and foolish servants. Let us take a closer look at the timing mentioned in these parables.
In Matthew 24:48 we find:
"But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, 'My master is staying away a long time,'" NIVThe phrase "is staying away a long time" weakly implies that the servant knows roughly how long the master will be away. From this perspective, we can infer a way to make sense of this: Jesus had allegedly just given them a list of signs which would forecast His return, so His followers would know that nothing would happen until these signs came to pass. This would give deviant followers living in the span between the death of Jesus and the Siege of Jerusalem decades of time to slack off in their morality before straightening up for Jesus' return, as the parable itself suggests. While the cat is away, the mice will play.
However, in the Luke 12:45 version we see:
"But suppose the servant says to himself, 'My master is taking a long time in coming,' and he then begins to beat the menservants and maidservants and to eat and drink and get drunk." NIVThe phrase "is taking a long time in coming" instead weakly implies that the servant had expected the master back already, but it appears that the master is delayed for some reason. From this perspective, we can infer a different situation; that perhaps the signs have all happened (up to the Siege of Jerusalem and so Jesus' return was expected) but there is an unexplained delay in Jesus' return.
Because these are only weak implications, they could easily be wrong, or both them could be taken to mean either interpretation noted above. However, if the latter version is true, it could be somewhat revealing. It could subsequently imply something about the timing of when Matthew and Luke were written, in that it could mean that these two Gospels were written after the Siege, possibly by several years, at a time when life seemed to be returning to normal. The closer you get to normal after some catastrophic event, the less it seems like Jesus' return is just around the corner, and, in turn, that means the more doubt springing up from within the community of the faithful. A message like this could be used to motivate the community to stay in the faith despite the apparent lag in manifest divine glory.
Given that Mark, the earliest of these three Gospels, did not share this sentiment anywhere, it appears that this delay may be an addition to the original story. Somewhat contrary to this theory is the fact that Matthew and Luke share this particular content nearly identically, suggesting a relatively early tradition committed to writing at some point in time earlier than the Matthew and Luke themselves. But given that we still do not know exactly when these two Gospels came into being, that "relatively early" could easily be after the Siege.
Continuing to the next chapter, in Matthew 25:1-13 there is a parable about ten virgins who "went out to meet the bridegroom." Half of them were smart enough to bring oil for their lamps just in case they needed it, but the other half did not. When the bridegroom arrived, he ultimately rejected the five virgins who were not adequately oiled. It seems a little odd that the bridegroom would kick out five extra virgins over such a trivial mistake, but let us leave that alone. ;-) The key verse for us in regards to this study is Matthew 25:5:
"The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep." NIVIn case it was not obvious, the bridegroom represents Jesus. Given that we started with these virgins going out to meet the bridegroom, you have a sense that they expected him to be there, ready for them. Instead we see that it took a long time, longer than expected, for the bridegroom to arrive. This plays into the notion noted above; that perhaps Matthew was written in a time when people were already expecting for Jesus to have returned, and so these verses were written to keep the faithful flock in line. The End was put on hold, and yet held perpetually at the threshold of occurring.
In the next parable the point was briefly emphasized again. Matthew 25:14-28 contains the Parable of the Talents, which somewhat similar to the Parable of the Ten Minas which we studied before from Luke 19:11-27. As noted in the previous study, the many differences between these two parables combined with a similar backbone suggests that this was an oral tradition carried on verbally for a considerable amount of time before being written, much longer than the parable we started this study with, as well as perhaps some intentional "enhancement" of the parable by Luke. Anyway, there is one particular difference we should focus on relevant to the timing aspect. In Matthew 25:19 we find:
"After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them." NIV"After a long time" also appears to be preparing believers for a longer than expected time frame for Jesus' return. If the comparison with Luke's version of the parable is valid, it appears that Matthew may have deliberately inserted the "long time" into the story, as Luke 19:15 does not mention anything about how long it took for the master to return. Luke also used this parable to speak about timing, but explicitly did so to explain that Jesus did not intend to establish the Kingdom of God the first time He was on earth in the flesh (Luke 19:11).
Matthew was generally pretty good at aggregating and consolidating information, and here we can see an example of his work. Back to back to back, we have seen three references where Matthew was trying to communicated that, contrary to what we may have guessed from the previous chapter, Jesus' return would not be immediately after the Siege of Jerusalem. In short, we have seen here how Matthew prepared his followers for a long wait; a wait which may have already been in progress at the time of writing the Gospel.
How about we end on a somewhat positive note? Closing out this chapter, in Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus relayed how, on Judgement Day, He would reward people according to what they had done. He explained that such good deeds as feeding the hungry, clothing the needy, and visiting people in prison were actually done to Him vicariously. On the other hand, if you did not help out these people in need, you vicariously rejected Jesus.
On the good side, this is a great way to motivate people to help other people. Followers should literally be thinking that what they are doing to help they are doing to Jesus Himself. Even if Christianity was a deliberate hoax (which I think is an inaccurate, or at least incomplete, assessment), with messages like these it is hard to say that it was a completely malignant hoax. You could argue that church leaders may have been becoming wealthy and powerful as the movement grew, but you would also have to acknowledge that the movement did, and still does, aid the marginalized people in society to some extent.
On the other hand, this message is the proverbial gun-to-the-head situation. Help the needy, or get punished. And it is not a proportional punishment, either. Matthew 25:41 sends those who provide no aid "into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels," and Matthew 25:46 confirms that this will be an "eternal punishment." This is one of the most explicit references to the eternally torturing fires of Hell that you find in Matthew. Some Christians who do not like the concept of eternal torture will instead argue that this just means either an eternal "separation from God" or an annihilation (as in, if you cease to exist, that is an eternal punishment). Eternal punishment, of any flavor, for not visiting people in prison seems a little bit extreme to me.
Finally, from another perspective, note that this is explicitly a works-based Salvation plan. Merely having faith in Jesus will not save you if you do not take action to feed the hungry, visit prisoners, clothe the poor, etc.