Jesus is coming soon are words that we seem to hear more and more with each passing day. I wholeheartedly agree that the return of Jesus Christ is soon, but recently I have wondered whether that imminence should be our primary source of hope when it concerns “the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).1
Matthew 24 provides the framework for what we often refer to as “the signs of the times.” Tucked away in that chapter are important admonitions signaling how we can find hope in these hopeless times.
Matthew 24 establishes one clear and overarching point: the day and hour of Jesus’ return are not known by any of us as humans or even the angels of heaven. Jesus emphasizes this point three times (vv. 36, 42, 44) in just eight verses. Undoubtedly, He is trying to capture the attention of each of His listeners. While much could be said about those verses, our particular focus is on what Jesus instructs each listener to do since we do not know when He is coming.
In verse 42, Jesus says, “ ‘Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming.’ ” And then in verse 44, “ ‘Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.’ ” What are we to do in a world that seems to be spiraling out of control at a more and more rapid pace? Watch, and be ready. Those words form the basis of hope in hopeless times.
The word watch, in the original Greek, is γρηγορέω (gragoreo). It means “to stay awake, be watchful, to be in constant readiness, and to remain fully alive.”2 The word appears 24 times in the New Testament. “ ‘Watch’ implies not only to keep looking but also to be prepared. Jesus stresses the deep division between those who are ready and those who are not. Their preparedness will mean either blessing at the coming of the Son of Man or judgment, so they must keep watch and be ready at all times.”3 In fact, the book of Revelation pronounces a blessing on those who watch: “ ‘Behold, I am coming as a thief. Blessed is he who watches, and keeps his garments, lest he walk naked, and they see his shame’ ” (Rev. 16:15). That blessing is happiness and hope in hopeless times.
While the word watch emphasizes “staying awake or being alive,” Jesus’ usage of the words be ready focuses on preparedness. Theologian Walter Grundmann states, “The clear meaning of this word group is preparation both in the active sense of ‘making ready’ and in the passive of ‘readiness,’ ‘ability’ or ‘resolution.’ ”4 Grundmann maintains, “In the NT readiness is demanded in three respects: readiness for good works . . . readiness to bear witness to the Gospel . . . and readiness for the return of the Lord. The last requirement Jesus put to His disciples with particular urgency.”5
What is it then that we are to watch for, and how can we be ready? Jesus’ instruction “to watch” first points back to what He taught in the previous 35 verses. There, He instructed His disciples (and now us today) that there will be signs of His return that we should be alert for.
Extensive studies have taken place on the specific topic of signs. We can best summarize them as signs in religion, politics, governmental affairs, culture, society, and nature. It only takes a perusal of the news to see that the words of Jesus seem to be increasingly fulfilled each and every day. But Jesus’ instruction “to watch” also points forward. In Matthew 25:13, He essentially repeats His instruction from Matthew 24:42: “ ‘Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.’ ” Such watchfulness leads to happiness and hope despite the upheaval in religion, government, culture, and nature. It tightly ties chapters 24 and 25 together.
The three parables of Matthew 25 provide the key to answering how to watch and be ready. They are the parables of the ten virgins, the ten talents, and the sheep and goats. While space does not allow for an extensive exegesis of each parable, we can extract key principles of how we might watch and be ready.
The Word and Holy Spirit
The parable of the ten virgins begins, “ ‘Then the kingdom of heaven shall be likened to ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.’ ” A lamp in ancient times was vital because it provided light in the dark. The psalmist declares, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps. 119:105). The lamp represents the Word of God.
We can find hope in times of hopelessness only by following Jesus’ instruction to watch and be ready, not by abstract gazing at a cloudless sky but by meaningful involvement in a pain-filled world.
Yet, while all the virgins had lamps, there was a contrast among them. “ ‘Those who were foolish took their lamps and took no oil with them, but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps’ ” (Matt. 25:3). This difference has been wonderfully outlined:
I doubt not that the right solution is to be found in regarding the oil as symbolical of the Holy Spirit, or the graces of God. . . . We should say that the ten virgins had so far alike taken and used the grace of God, but that they differed in this—that, while the wise maintained the supply of grace by constant recourse to the means thereof, the foolish were satisfied with their spiritual state once for all, and took no pains to keep their spiritual life healthful and active by the renewal of the Holy Spirit in their hearts. They retained the outward show and form of faith, but neglected the true inward life of faith; they had the appearance without the reality.6
How are we to watch? By living lives founded on God’s Word and fulfilled through the power of the Holy Spirit working in our lives.
Useful to God
The parable of the ten talents highlights our willingness to be useful to God. Of course, we all know the parable well. One received five talents, another two, and the last just one. A talent was both a weight measure and an amount of money. It is apparent that this parable has in mind a unit of money. I do not know about you, but I always felt bad for the man who received only one talent. That was, of course, until I understood the value of one talent. “A talent was about 6,000 days’ wages.”7 Let that sink in for just a moment. Just one talent was about 20 years’ worth of wages (52 days off for Sabbath per year). The NIV Bible Commentary states, “All that we are—whether naturally endowed or Spirit-bestowed—must be employed in service of the kingdom of God. Not everyone is born with the same talents, and not everyone is endowed with the same gifts of the Spirit, yet each of us can be productive in our own unique ways. All of our service in the kingdom is inherently valuable. . . . Our responsibility is to plan for the long haul and use our giftedness to advance the kingdom of God.”8 How are we to be ready? By allowing God to use us wherever and whenever He sees fit.
Caring for others
Matthew 25 concludes with the parable of the sheep and the goats. The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary aptly points out the parable’s emphasis: “In making the needs of others our responsibility we reflect this same aspect of the divine character. When we reflect the character of Jesus perfectly we will feel as He does toward those in need, and through us He will be able to solace and succor others. The best evidence of love for God is love that leads us to bear ‘one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.’ . . . The best evidence that a person has become a son of God is that he does the works of God.”9 How are we to be ready? By caring enough for the humanity God made that our hearts yearn for mission and sharing the message that none would be lost.
Make it a reality
Jesus is coming soon, but our focus can be so much on the future that we forget our present reality. We can find hope in times of hopelessness only by following Jesus’ instruction to watch and be ready, not by abstract gazing at a cloudless sky but by meaningful involvement in a pain-filled world. May we, especially as pastors, find the blessing of God in being grounded in His Word, consecrated by His Spirit, used wherever He plants us, and caring to share the gospel in both word and deed.
- Scripture in this article is from the New King James Version.
- William F. Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, Walter Bauer, and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 208.
- Michael J. Wilkins, Matthew, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 802.
- Walter Grundmann, “Ἕτοιμος, Ἑτοιμάζω, Ἑτοιμασία, Προετοιμάζω,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel, ed. and trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, vol. 2, electronic ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), 704.
- Grundman, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 706.
- H. D. M. Spence-Jones, ed., St. Matthew, vol. 2, The Pulpit Commentary (New York, NY: Funk & Wagnalls, 1909), 473.
- Jon L. Dybdahl, ed., Andrews Study Bible, NKJV (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2010), 1286, note on Matthew 25:15.
- Wilkins, Matthew, The NIV Application Commentary, 819.
- Francis D. Nichol, ed., The Seventh-Day Adventist Bible Commentary, vol. 5 (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1956), 512.