Matthew 24, First Thought Commentary: Part 2
"Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come" Matthew 24:9-14These passages are particularly encouraging to me right now. I'm so sick of being misunderstood, called naive, idealistic, liberal, etc. because of my faith in Christ's victory over death. But whatever "persecutions" I think I am going through, they are certainly quite mild compared to what the early Christians were going through. Often misunderstood as "atheists" because they didn't follow the gods of Rome and as rebels because they would not support the war machine which was supposed to be ushering in the Peace of Rome, Pax Romana (which didn't turn out so peaceful for the people who were put under the sword in the name of Pax Romana), the early Christians were often ridiculed, rejected from their communities, and put under the sword for their disobedience to Caesar and their faith in another King called Jesus the Christ. They truly were persecuted for their faith.
What could happen to one of these early Christians if they only saw themselves as "waiting" for Christ's return? What if that was their primary focus? Things could get confusing. If Jesus is coming, where is he? There they were, being persecuted for their faith, put under the sword, denied the ability to buy and sell because they wouldn't take Caesar's mark, and the hope for which they're being persecuted doesn't seem to be coming... Where's Jesus? Where's the Pax Chistos, the peace of Christ, the Kingdom of God? The Romans were probably laughing at the early Christians' seemingly false hope.
Perhaps this part of the text was written for those Christians in particular.
Going back to the basics of Biblical interpretation, I must remind you that Matthew was written some time after Jesus' death and resurrection. For quite some time, the gospels were passed on verbally from one generation to another before they were finally written down. So essentially, within the text, we have two cultures being spoken to (not to mention our own). We have, first of all, the original audience of Jesus, the actual people who sat at his feet, followed him, witnessed his life, watched him die, and experienced his resurrection. Jesus' words would have certainly been for that crowd. But then, secondly, we have Matthew's audience, the people to whom Matthew thought the book was important enough to write. Matthew surely would have remembered the things that were most important for him and his fellows and he would have written the story not just to recount history but specifically to answer the questions and provide some lens for the people to whom he was writing.
This passage is probably specifically for the people to whom Matthew was writing. Sure it was probably out of some memory of what Jesus actually said but what's important is that it answers the questions of Matthew's audience, living post-resurrection Christian lives, following Jesus' teachings, and now experiencing heavy persecution for it. It's Matthew's way of saying, "don't be surprised, this persecution isn't a surprise to Jesus, it's not going to change the plan... look! Jesus expected it and said it was going to happen." He's reminding them that even though persecution is tough, they should still press forward. Even though some are giving in to cynicism and despair, even though some are buying in to death's claim to power, even though many "turn away from the faith and betray and hate each other," and even though some believe the false prophets who pervert the gospel and trade it for some other narrative, there is still hope. "He who stands firm to the end will be saved" and this good news of death's defeat, this gospel of true peace will "be preached in the whole world" even though the empire thinks they can silence it and squelch it by torturing and killing the agents of the gospel. The "love of most" may "grow cold" but Jesus calls the Church to stand firm even when we feel alone, even when we're mocked for still believing that there is hope.
We may not always end up with a sword to our throats or with a gun to our heads, but there are times when it seems that everyone, even our own fellow Christians, has given up on the gospel of Jesus Christ, on the peace that surpasses understanding, and on the freedom Christ offer, even freedom to love our enemies. When we find ourselves standing for the marginalized, fighting for the hope of salvation and insisting that death has lost it's power, we may very well find ourselves feeling very alone if not in chains of physical persecution. Names like, "idealist," "communist," and "liberal" may be hurled at you for being foolish enough to believe Jesus was right when he said "love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked" (Luke 6:35).
Once again, I must point out that this is not in any way mapping out the end times. It is indeed pertinent to the future, to anyone who is experiencing or will experience suffering and persecution for Christ's sake, but it is no time-line of "signs." Rather, it is, as all apocalyptic literature is, resistance literature--written for the marginalized and the oppressed in order to offer to them a lens of hope through which to see the world around them so that they might be empowered to press on toward the invisible but assured victory of the resurrection.