In 1880, a pastor named Claas Epp led 600 Russian Mennonites on a 1700-mile trek across Central Asia to set up a new community and await Christ’s return, prophesied to occur in 1889. On the appointed date, the entire group gathered on a hill to welcome the Lord – but when nothing happened, Claas realized that he had misinterpreted his vision and declared that Christ was actually returning in 1891. Eventually, Claas’ own followers realized that his teachings had become increasingly bizarre and ex-communicated him from the church.
Why is Christian history so full of stories like Claas Epp’s? Both individuals and whole groups can easily become obsessed with determining the exact date of Christ’s return – even though the Bible claims it’s a hopeless task! In our Sunday School lesson this week, taken from Matthew 24:1-14, we want to steer away from speculation about the end times and focus on the challenges and opportunities mentioned in the passage that we can expect to face right now as believers. These signs are indicative of the end times, and yet they are signs that the church in every age of history since its beginning has seen and experienced. How do we mesh those two ideas, and what “time” are we living in?
We will mostly stick to the first verses of Matthew 24, and yet we will talk a little about how the whole chapter is often interpreted. In what time period do you understand Jesus’ words here to be taking place? Did everything predicted here happen before A.D. 70 and the destruction of the Jewish temple? Has nothing in this chapter been fulfilled, and should it be placed completely in the context of a future, seven-year Tribulation period? Or (hint, hint) should different parts of the chapter be understood as describing both of these time periods?
Certainly much of what is described in vs. 1-14 is happening to the church around the world today. How can we be watchful for these challenges in our own churches? Finally, knowing that we should avoid foolish speculation (like Claas Epp), but also that the return of the Lord is a definite event that we should be prepared for, how should we continue to speak and teach about the Second Coming? Does the knowledge of the Second Coming affect how we live our daily lives? All this and more, Sunday at Shalom!