A grave misreading of Matthew 24 leads people to imagine that Christ’s return will be accompanied by remarkable signs and wonders.
Jesus’ well-known discourse actually addresses several questions, and much of what he says regarding the destruction of the Temple has erroneously found its way into the apocalyptic thinking of many religious groups.
One of the most interesting aspect of Jesus’ discourse is that his summation of history is void of anything remarkable. There will be wars, says Jesus, and rumours of wars. Persecutions. People falling away from the Faith. Anyone familiar with human history knows that this has characterised life for the last 2,000 years, and shows no signs of abating for the foreseeable future. Thus, our Lord sees human history as a writhing serpent, never still, its upheavals and convulsions never ending.
Contrary to the apocalyptic view that jumps at “signs” or the charismatics that see apocalypse in their morning cornflakes, Jesus teaches the inverse. There is absolutely no doubt about this at all because it is something that is belaboured in the text not only at the end of Matthew 24 but also in the parables of Matthew 25.
His return will be like a “thief in the night”. Just as a thief does not herald his coming with fireworks, neither will the Son of Man herald his coming with signs. It will be like the Flood, Jesus explains. In this example, Christ emphasises not the wickedness of Noah’s generation, but the suddenness and unexpected nature of Judgement Day that swept them all away.
They were eating and drinking – having breakfast; taking a snack; sitting down to lunch – and they were marrying and giving in marriage, right up to the day Noah entered the ark. In other words, the day of Deluge was also some young woman’s “special day”. It was the day some young man somewhere had wedding jitters and was reassured by his friends.
Thus, our Lord emphasises the mundane, ordinariness of human life right up to the final hour. He illustrates his teaching with reference to life’s daily humdrum necessities and the impulse toward family life. Judgement Day, Jesus points out, was an ordinary day. At least, it began as an ordinary day.
The fundamental point made by the text is sombre: the day and hour are unknown, and because this is true, many will be unprepared. This was so for the five foolish virgins who were not ready when the bridegroom arrived at midnight. They were found on the wrong side of a closed door, a common theme in Jesus’ teaching. As they hammer on the door asking for admission, the bridegroom makes a critical statement: “I tell you the truth, I do not know who you are.”
If we read at a deeper doctrinal level, we can see that this, then, was the problem of the foolish all along. They claimed to know the bridegroom, but he did not know them. And that is why they were foolish. That is why they had no surplus oil, and why they were unprepared, and why they ultimately were shut out. It wasn’t a mistake. It wasn’t an error. The bridegroom was not being peevish and unreasonable. It was because they really were not friends of the bridegroom at all, but mere impostors trying to gain access to a wedding that they were not really entitled to be at.
Those who do not know Christ – authentically and palpably – will never be ready to meet their Maker. In the parable, the bridegroom could have come at 1:00 am, or 2:00 am, or even the next night. It would have made no difference to the outcome. The foolish would still have been unprepared. They still would have lacked oil. They still would not have sought the essential resource from the sellers.
The spiritual lesson is simple: those who do not really, properly know Christ – and most vitally, are known by him – will never be ready for his return. They could live until they are 80 or 180, and it would make no difference. For fools are always in the business of “getting ready”, but are they never truly and properly “ready”. They are not watching, waiting and hoping.
No wonder Jesus says to be watchful. For the bridegroom could return at any moment. It could even be tonight.