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Explore the Bible Series

November 18, 2007

 

Background Passage: The Gospel of Matthew 23:1-25:46

Lesson Passage: The Gospel of Matthew 25: 31-46

 

Introduction: These three chapters record the Olivet Discourse, the last of five sermons of Jesus, as reflected in Matthew’s Gospel.  Scholars debate the relationship between the material in Chapter Twenty-three and the sermonic reflections in Chapters Twenty-four and Twenty-five.  Matthew seems to indicate some distinction between the two sections.  For instance, the sermon in Chapter Twenty-three was addressed to the crowds and the disciples (See 23:1), but the next two chapters center attention on Christ’s private dialog with the Twelve (See 24:3).  Also, the two portions of our lesson occurred in different places.  Chapter Twenty-three gives little insight into the venue of this material, but the discourse in Chapters Twenty-four and Twenty-five, according to the text, was delivered on the Mount of Olives.  Perhaps this lesson covers two aspects of occurrences on the same day.  At one point, Jesus addressed a large crowd, somewhere in the vicinity of Jerusalem (perhaps in the Temple—See 24:1).  The content of his message clearly put Jesus at odds with the Jewish religious leaders and helped set the tone for the horrific events of Passion Week.  After speaking to the multitudes, Jesus withdrew to the Mount of Olives to privately instruct the Twelve. 

 

The Mount of Olives was located, across the Kidron Valley, to the east of Old Jerusalem.  The beautiful ridge rose about three hundred feet above the Temple Mount, and, in Jesus’ day, was covered with gardens and fruitful olive groves. Perhaps Jesus took his disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane, a lovely, walled olive garden that overlooked the ancient city.   Matthew 26:1-2 seems to indicate that Jesus delivered this discourse two days before the supper in the upper room.  His crucifixion was very near, and Jesus took occasion, during these critical last days, to pronounce a lament over the decadent religious system of the Temple and prepare his disciples for his execution and resurrection.  Therefore, this discourse (if we take it as a unified, single address) expressed Jesus’ grief over the spiritual conditions of his day and predicted the equally dismal circumstances that would precede his Second Advent.

 

Perhaps we should consider, from the outset, some issues concerning the eschatology (doctrine of last things) we will encounter in the following lesson materials.  I have much to learn about eschatology, and I will refrain from drawing hard and fast lines regarding this discourse.  It appears, as I study the text, that Jesus addressed two distinct occurrences: the future destruction of Jerusalem and the Lord’s eventual, glorious return.  However, he did not always distinguish these events in ways that seem clear to me.  Perhaps the Lord intended for his followers to understand the destruction of Jerusalem (70 A.D.) as a foreshadowing of the cataclysmic events that would accompany his eventual return at the end of the age.

 

 

Lesson Outline:  

 

 

I.                   Jesus’ Lament for the Decadent Religious System of His Day (23:1-39): As stated earlier, Jesus appears to have delivered this message in the Temple, the very epicenter of First-Century Judaism.  The Temple courts must have buzzed with activity as the crowds anticipated the events of Passover Week, and Jesus took this occasion to express a lament over the things he observed.  He pronounced seven “woes” over the scribes and Pharisees, and, at the end of this chapter he expanded his lament to the entire city of Jerusalem.  He singles out the scribes and Pharisees as emblematic of the spiritual problems of the people, and these “woes” express both judgment and grief.

A.    Introduction to this discourse (vv. 1-12): At the outset of the address, Jesus outlined his complaint against the scribes and Pharisees.

1.      “they preach, but they do not practice” (v. 3)

2.      “they tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and place them on men’s shoulders” (v. 4)

3.      “they do their deeds to be seen of others” (vv. 5f): They broadened the straps that bound bits of Scripture to their arms and foreheads, they extended the fringe on their prayer shawls, they sought positions of honor at banquets and in the synagogues, and they coveted impressive religious titles. Above all, they refused to cast themselves as servants of the people (See v. 11).

B.     Seven woes on the religious leaders (vv. 13-36): Jesus’ words seem harsh, especially to those who envision him as weak, soft-handed man. Perhaps we should consider, however, the meaning of the word “woe.”  Clearly, this word connotes impending judgment, but it also reflects the funereal language of the First-Century. This situation grieved the Savior.  These woes do not negate God’s covenant with Israel; rather, these consequences came upon these disobedient people just as the covenant had promised.

1.      “You shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces” (vv. 13-14): Not only did these men refuse to enter the kingdom themselves, they did all they could to hinder others form entering as well.

2.      “You travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte… you make him twice a child of hell as yourselves (v. 15).  These leaders spared no expense or energy to win converts to their truncated version of Judaism, but their efforts led to a generation of proselytes who outdid their masters in kingdom abuses.

3.      “You blind guides…” (16-22): Jesus scolded the Pharisees for their habit of swearing by the objects in the Temple, a practice that masked their deception of the people.

4.      “You tithe… but neglect the weightier matters of the law” (vv. 23-24): Their fastidious attention to tithing, again, masked their disregard for justice, mercy, and faithfulness.

5.      “You clean the outside of the cup… but inside, you are full of greed and self-indulgence” (vv. 25-26).

6.      “Like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but inside you are full of dead people’s bones” (vv. 27-28).

7.      “You build the tombs of the prophets… but, you are sons of those who killed the prophets” (vv. 29-36).

C.     A sincere lament over Jerusalem (vv. 37-39): First-Century Jews gave full vent to the grieving process, and Jesus, in the mainstream of Jewish culture, expressed his deep grief over the unbelief and hostility he encountered from the religious establishment. 

 

 

II.     Foreshadowings of Things to Come (24:1-25:46)

A.    The setting of the Olivet Discourse (24:1-14): After Jesus pronounced the woes upon the religious leaders, he left the Temple area and made his way, along with the disciples, to the Mount of Olives. The Lord predicted the destruction of the Temple (which indeed took place about forty years later, in 70 A.D.), and he identified several features of the years that would follow the demise of the Temple, leading up to the end of the age.

1.      False Christs will arise who lead many astray (vv. 4-5).

2.      Cataclysmic events will characterize the period before the end of the age: wars and rumors of war famines, earthquakes, persecution of believers, great apostasy, increased lawlessness, and the preaching of the gospel to the ends of the earth. Please note that Jesus did not portray these occurrences as portents of the end; rather, these things will characterize the entire period between Christ’s First and Second Advents.

B.     The Abomination of Desolation (24:15-31): This passage is based on Daniel 9:27 and 11:31.  In 168 B.C. Antiochus Epiphanies desecrated the Temple by erecting a pagan altar and offering unclean sacrifices.  The Jews identified this desecration as the abomination of desolation.  Again, in 70 A.D., pagan rulers (the Romans) defiled the Temple by stealing the sacred furnishings and burning the beautiful building.  Great tribulation characterized the years after the Roman War, and false Christs and prophets arose, performing great signs and wonders and leading many into spiritual ruin. These ruinous desolations will, according to Jesus’ prediction, continue until Lord’s return.  Great, catastrophic events will attend the Lord’s return, and the angels will gather God’s elect from around the world.  Like the leaves on a fig tree, the signs of the times will foreshadow the coming of all these things. The phrase “this generation shall not pass away” proves difficult.  Perhaps it refers to the destruction of Jerusalem, an occurrence that took place within a generation of Jesus’ earthly ministry.

C.     The dangers that attend the coming Day of the Lord (24:36-25:13)

1.      The danger of setting dates (24:36-44): Jesus highlighted two problems that might trouble those who anticipate the Lord’s return.  Some may presumptuously think they can predict the precise moment of Christ’s return. Remarkably, the Lord said he did not know the time of his return; therefore, others should not foolishly believe they could know these things. Another problem relates to the possibility of unpreparedness for the Lord’s return. Like Noah’s day, people should discern the coming judgment of the world. Only foolish men refuse to read the signs of the times and ignore the Lord’s clear warnings.

2.      Three parables concerning preparedness for the Lord’s return (24:45-25:30): the Parable of the Wise Steward, the Parable of the Ten Virgins, and the Parable of the Talents.  Each of these little stories illustrates Jesus’ point about the blessedness of being prepared for his Second coming and the foolishness of being unprepared.

D.    The Final Judgment (25:32-46): When the Lord comes in his glory, he will effect a great separation among the inhabitants of the world.  Like a shepherd separating sheep and goats, Jesus will divide the righteous and the wicked.  The sheep, separated to the right (the position of honor and blessing), will b distinguished by their service to Christ through concrete ministry of compassion on the poor and hungry, and the goats, separated on the left will be marked by their disregard for the broken and needy.  The righteous will enter into eternal life and the wicked will be consigned to eternal punishment.

 

Observations About the Lesson:

1.      Believers should view with skepticism those who make bold predictions about the timing of Christ’s return.  The text could not be clearer on this matter.

2.      Believers should give great diligence to preparing for the return of Jesus.  In particular, Christians should take heed to the suffering and poverty of a broken world. Jesus’ work centers on proclaiming the gospel and meeting the needs of people.  The Lord always identified with the poor, the broken, the suffering ones, and the Christ’s followers must evidence the same priorities. 

3.      The stakes are high. I take no delight in the reality of eternal judgment; yet, the Lord’s teachings, again, could not be clearer. We deal with eternal verities, and no true disciple of Jesus should ever lose sight of the horrific consequences of an ungodly life.

4.      The true work of the Lord does not focus on erecting impressive buildings, promoting earthly prosperity, or building an extraordinary personal following. So many of the priorities of the modern American church do not characterize the criteria Jesus set for his people.  Rather, he called his people to preach the gospel and minister to the poor and broken people of the world.