Toward the end of His ministry, Jesus gave a harrowing description of what world conditions would be like prior to His second coming. He went on to explain what His followers should do in preparation for that time, whenever it would come.
He said we should learn a lesson from the fig tree. Just as we can tell that summer is near when the leaves come out, we can know in general terms when Jesus’ return will happen by the fact that all of the conditions He described have been met.
He noted that a single generation would see the fulfillment of all the prophesied events. It makes sense, then, that the various wars, earthquakes, famines and persecutions that have happened over the past 2,000 years have not signaled the ultimate end; they have been precursors. Furthermore, the disturbances that are prophesied to occur in the heavens have not yet taken place.
The return of Jesus Christ is not a myth; it is a reality that has not yet occurred. However, as Jesus pointed out, it is impossible to predict the exact timing of His return. He said that even He is not party to when it will be (“No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” [Matthew 24:36]).
However, He did give some indications of the way the world would be in attitude and approach at that time. He said, “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man” (verses 37–39). In other words, most people will continue doing the things they normally do, seemingly oblivious of what will be just ahead, despite the warnings they will hear. The few who heed the warnings will escape.
Lessons in Vigilance
Jesus also gave five parables to help us understand the importance of faithfulness and being personally vigilant. He said that we should be on guard—keep watch—because we do not know on what day He will return. He said, “It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with his assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch” (Mark 13:34).
As we anticipate His return, we are to “be careful, or [our] hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on [us] unexpectedly like a trap. For it will come upon all those who live on the face of the whole earth” (Luke 21:34–35). Here, then, is information for all: “What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’” (Mark 13:37).
“What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”
The second parable concerned watching for a thief. Jesus said, “If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him” (Matthew 24:43–44).
In a third, lengthier example, Jesus spoke of a servant who had been put in charge of the other servants’ needs while his master was away. He said, “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns” (verses 45–46). The emphasis here is on faithful service until Jesus’ return.
But there’s also a warning for those tempted to say that the Second Coming is in the far future. Jesus continued, “But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time,’ and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (verses 48–51).
The fourth parable to emphasize watchfulness is the famous parable of the ten virgins, five of whom were wise and five foolish. They were waiting for a bridegroom to come. Half of them took no extra oil for their lamps. The other half had a supply with them. There was a delay in the bridegroom’s arrival, and they all fell asleep. At midnight an announcement was made that he had arrived. Only half of them were prepared with oil in their lamps to go out and meet him. The others desperately tried to buy oil, but it was too late. The bridegroom arrived while they were unprepared. They tried later to get in to the wedding banquet but were kept out: the bridegroom said, “I don’t know you” (Matthew 25:1–13). Again it was a warning to be vigilant, because the precise timing of Jesus’ return is not known.
The fifth and final parable about faithfulness concerned a man going on a journey and giving money to his servants to use until his return. Jesus said, “To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money” (verses 14–18).
When the master returned, those who had increased their holdings were rewarded with more. They had been faithful. But the one who had operated out of fear of his master and had done nothing, had his money taken away and given to the one who had the 10 talents. The faithless servant was said to be worthless in the parable.
As we anticipate the return of Jesus Christ, then, it’s clear that vigilance and faithfulness are prerequisites.
Life and Death Forever
Jesus had answered at length His disciples’ questions about the end of the age and His return to rule as King of kings. Now in conclusion He spoke of the judgment that will occur after His second coming. It was an unexpected end to His conversation, yet it connected His followers with their personal responsibility as they waited for their Master’s return.
Jesus said, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne. . . . All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left” (Matthew 25: 31–33). This ruler will have authority over the nations, and He will judge them according to an interesting standard, as Jesus pointed out next.
“I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.”
He said, “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me’” (verses 34–36). As Jesus said, His followers had done this to fellow man, and by so doing, it was as if they had performed that service to Jesus Himself.
To those who have not done such service to others, the King of kings will say, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me” (verses 41–43).
Eternal life and eternal punishment will ultimately be decided on the basis of our attitude to God and our fellow human beings, as proven by our actions. Will we keep the two great commands of the law that Jesus spoke of when He addressed the rich young man who wanted eternal life? Will we love God and our fellow man?
Of Greed and Betrayal
When Jesus had finished this lengthy discussion with His disciples, He reminded them that the Passover was two days away and that His death was imminent.
The religious authorities were looking for a way to capture and murder Him. Matthew’s Gospel says, “Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and they plotted to arrest Jesus in some sly way and kill him. ‘But not during the Feast,’ they said, ‘or there may be a riot among the people’” (Matthew 26:3–5).
Jesus was staying close to Jerusalem, at Bethany, with His friends, Mary and Martha and their brother, Lazarus. One evening they were together at the home of a man named Simon, when Mary took some expensive perfume and poured it on Jesus. Some in the group were upset at what they perceived to be a waste. They said it could have been sold and the money given to the poor.
One of the complainers was Judas Iscariot, the man who was soon to betray Jesus to the authorities. But as John’s Gospel shows, Judas’s motives were far from pure. John says, “He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it” (John 12:6).
Jesus’ responded to this accusation of waste on Mary’s part: “Leave her alone. Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her” (Mark 14:6–9).
“Wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
Judas, however, was not satisfied. The next we read of him is when he has decided to betray Jesus to the authorities. Going to them, he asked what they would pay for such a betrayal. They gave him 30 pieces of silver.
Judas now set about finding the right opportunity to deliver Jesus when there was no crowd present. Despite the authorities’ earlier commitment not to take Jesus at the Passover because of the crowds and Jesus’ popularity, Judas’s offer was too good to refuse.
Who Is the Greatest?
The last Passover that Jesus kept with His disciples was held in an upper room in Jerusalem. On a Tuesday evening Jesus and the disciples came together to observe the most solemn of the biblical observances. When they were seated, Jesus said, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God” (Luke 22:15–16). It was a signal that His death was imminent. His disciples still did not seem to understand the significance of what He was saying, as is illustrated by what happened next.
An argument broke out among them as to who was the greatest. Jesus explained, as He had before, that it was service that marked out the righteous leaders among them, not lordship and authority of the world’s kind. He said, “But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves” (verses 26–27).
Directing their sights toward the great goal ahead, He reminded them that they would be in His kingdom with Him. He said, “You are those who have stood by me in my trials. And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (verses 28–30).
An Act of Greatness
To emphasize the humility that would be necessary for them to deal with each other and with their fellow human beings, Jesus got up from the table, took off His outer clothing, wrapped a towel around His waist, and began to wash their feet.
This was a menial task typically performed only by household servants. Yet here was their Master doing exactly that. They had been debating their greatness; now He was showing them by a physical example how they should be in spirit. This was far from the self-exaltation they had just indulged in.
He came to Peter, who asked in a somewhat perplexed tone, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” (John 13:6). As Jesus said, Peter did not yet understand the significance, but he would. Once Jesus told him that he must not refuse or he would have no part with Him, Peter replied that he now wanted to be washed completely. Jesus pointed out that washing his feet would be sufficient.
When He had finished the task, Jesus asked them whether they understood what He had just done. He said, “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them” (verses 13–17).
Here, then, Jesus set a new tradition for the Church that they would observe after His resurrection. One of the practices they would follow would be to wash each other’s feet in an annual ceremony commemorating Jesus’ life of service and sacrifice for humanity.
Jesus knew, however, that at the table was someone who was not truly committed. He said, “One of you is going to betray me” (verse 21). This upset the disciples, and they began to question themselves. Peter signaled to John that he should ask Jesus who it was. Jesus said, “It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” He then gave it to Judas Iscariot, saying, “What you are about to do, do quickly” (verses 26–27). But the others thought that Judas had to buy something for the Passover season, since he was the treasurer.
Judas left, and Jesus, knowing what was about to happen, said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once” (verses 31–32).
Jesus then told them that He had only a little time left with them. He took the opportunity to give them a new commandment, that they should love each other. If they would do this, then all would know who they were—that they were His followers. But He said that first, that very night, they would all desert Him. Peter said he would never desert Jesus. But Jesus had to tell him the painful truth that before the cock would crow, Peter would have denied his Master three times.
Recasting the Passover
Once Judas was gone, Jesus instituted an amended Passover service that changed it from an Old Testament observance to a New Testament memorial. He emphasized the taking of bread and wine as an annual reminder of His own sacrifice for our sins. Mark tells us in his Gospel account: “And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body.’ Then He took the cup, and when He had given thanks He gave it to them, and they all drank from it. And He said to them, ‘This is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many. Assuredly, I say to you, I will no longer drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God’” (Mark 14:22–25, New King James Version).
The annual commemoration of the New Testament Passover is an obligation for all true followers of Christ. As the apostle Paul later said, “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). When Jesus instituted the amended Passover on the evening before His death, He set the example for all who would truly follow Him.