“The Beginning of the End”
March 9, 2014
The tragedies of the fallen world tell our hearts the end is near.
I. The destruction of the Temple (Matthew 24:1-3)II. The beginning of birth pains (Matthew 24:3-8) III. The Gospel persecuted and proclaimed (Matthew 24:9-14)
You don’t have to be a pessimist to groan at the sorry state of the world. From the largest arenas of global politics to the wars and conflicts of our own hearts, we see brokenness and tragedy all around. For two weeks we’ve watched the conflict in Ukraine, where national fervor and regional domination are at war. It is deeply reminiscent of past European crises which led to the bloodiest wars in human history. We pray this one can be diffused without further loss of life. But we groan, because war has been the unceasing story of mankind. We also groan because of what we call natural disasters, though these too at their root are a consequence of living in a fallen world. In my lifetime we’ve had the most deadly typhoon and the most deadly earthquake in modern history, and several more of each in the top ten.
Then there is persecution. It is undeniable that there have been more Christian martyrs in this century than ever before in the history of the church. Every day believers are suffering and dying for their faith in places like North Korea, China and Somalia. Last week in Sunday School we heard how Christians are suffering in Syria. World Magazine named Syria’s Antoine Audo, the 67-year-old Chaldean bishop of Aleppo, their ‘Daniel of the Year’ for his persistent and compassionate ministry in the face of horrible persecution that included the disappearance and death of six of Syria’s top church leaders since 2011. Audo continues to minister on the streets, saying “I am not afraid. It’s a question of confidence. I am confident of God’s provision as I am doing my job.” He adds “I respect everybody who chooses to leave. But I will continue.”
Here in America, we are seeing the erosion of Christian freedoms. I read an article this week pointing out that what our government used to call ‘freedom of religion,’ guaranteed by the First Amendment, is now being called ‘freedom of worship.’ This subtle change allows society and the government to concede that you are free to worship however you like inside your places of worship, but to say that your behavior outside those places must be as dictated by the state and the culture. The laws of our nation, from health care to homosexual marriage to whether a baker must bake every possible kind of cake, those laws increasingly attempt to enforce the state’s definition of morality.
But we don’t even have to look beyond our communities and our homes to find the tragedies of a fallen world. Just last week two teens were charged in the gruesomely brutal death of a Clear Lake girl, her body found in an apartment on El Camino Real, and her death apparently part of a Satanic cult ritual. And this is for real, folks, only a few miles from where we stand.
Even in our own homes, our own families, we are burdened by the tragedies: anger, hatred, rebellion, abuse, addiction, violence, suicide, these are not foreign words to the families of our congregation. Despite the fact that many of us know and love Jesus, the impact of life in a toxically fallen world is felt every day in our homes and in our souls. In fact maybe the greatest tragedy of all is that, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn recognized, the line between good and evil passes right through every human heart. The band Downhere says: I'm staggered by the clash inside my soul; So purposed for good, but inclined for evil. It's justice and mercy, the old dichotomies, All along the front lines of my heart in both doubt and belief; The sinner, and the saint, the old archenemies; All at war in me; All at war in me.”
So there is no denying the reality of tragedy and evil. But what do we do with that? What answer do we have? Jesus offers answers on several levels, but in our text this week, Matthew 24:1-14, he reminds us of one that gives us solemn hope: this world is not forever. These tragedies are not forever. Jesus promises that after this suffering, after this evil, there is an end. I believe more and more as a I grow older that the tragedies of this fallen world tell our hearts the end is near. We need to hold on to the hope that today’s world is not the final word.
Matthew 24:1-3 establishes the setting of Jesus’s comments in a question raised by his disciples: Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. 2But he answered them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” 3As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
Chapters 24 and 25 are a long discourse Jesus gave on the Mount of Olives during the week before his crucifixion. Remember we skipped the triumphal entry passage so we could look at it on Palm Sunday. Everything we’re looking at now occurs during that week in Jerusalem. In fact, Matthew tells us, this episode began at the temple. Despite the fact that it had been rebuilt by Herod, who many Jews held to be a traitor, the beauty of the temple in those days was one of the wonders of the world, and no Jew could see it without marveling.
But as the disciples remark about this marvel, Jesus brings them up short: “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” This is a pretty clear prophecy of the destruction of the temple, one of the most important events in the history of the Jewish people. It happened about 40 years later, one generation after this prediction was made.
The Jewish Zealots revolted against Rome and it took Rome’s finest general, Titus, and four legions of soldiers to put down the revolt. After 4 years, in A.D. 70 the Romans besieged Jerusalem and out of frustration at the difficulty of subduing the city finally set fire to it. The temple burned to the ground. Titus then ordered that the city be leveled, except for a few of the fortifications. The Temple was so thoroughly destroyed that archaeologists have only rarely found a stone from it. Jesus said ‘not one stone will stand on another.’
The disciples are incredulous, and later, as the group was resting on the path up the Mount of Olives, they said “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” There is no doubt that this question is asking at least two, possibly three separate things. “When will these things be?” That’s a question about the prophecy Jesus just made – when will the temple be destroyed? “What will be the sign of your coming?” The disciples believed Jesus was the Messiah, and he had told them over and over of his death and resurrection, but they were, rightly, still looking for the time when he would come as Messiah to reign. And this they knew, would bring the end of the present age, “what will be the sign of the end of the age.”
The remainder of our text today records the beginning of his answer, and next week we’ll look at the rest of it. The beginning of his answer concerns not the end itself, but the time before the end, the time in-between, that is, now. In light of the end that is coming, what should we expect, and by implication what should our attitude and behavior be now? This text says to me that the tragedies of the fallen world tell our hearts the end is near. The world is full of sadness and badness but one day Jesus is going to say ‘enough!’
Verses 3 to 8: As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” 4And Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray. 5For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. 6And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. 7For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.
All these things are signs that Jesus is coming back, and all of them happened before the generation Jesus was addressing had died. But though these things showed that the end was near, none of them tells us how near. In fact the paragraph implies that the delay will be substantial and that during this long period Jesus' disciples must not be deceived by false messiahs or misread signs.
Verse 4. One of the greatest temptations in times of difficulty is to follow blindly any self-proclaimed savior who offers easy answers. Those who "come in my name" could refer to those who come as Jesus’ representatives; but because of the words that follow, we must assume that they claim to be Messiah, Christ himself. These would-be deliverers have appeared in every age, not least the first century. Acts 5 mentions Theudas and Judas, two who had claimed to be ‘the Christ’ before Jesus. And Josephus the historian mentions many others in the years to follow. And throughout church history, from Arius to Joseph Smith, there have been those who false teaching led people away from the true church, not only into denial of basic beliefs about Jesus but into wild end-times predictions and distortions. Jesus was right about that.
But when this happens God’s true people only long more for the promised end. Don’t you feel that when you hear of someone really distorting the Christian message? I won’t name names today, because I don’t have time to support my assertions, but I am saddened at the state of the world when I encounter these false teachings rampant in the media, and I long for the world to come.
But of course, that’s not the only sign of a fallen world. Verse 6: “And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet.” There have been thousands of wars since Jesus’s time. One widely quoted 1992 study said that in the 17000 days since World War 2 there had been only 26 days when no international war was going on. And war is always tragic; even if you’re on the winning side and fighting in a righteous cause, the mere fact that a war had to be fought at all is a tragedy. I’ve read thousands of pages on war, and I’ve almost never met anyone on those pages who didn’t long for it to be over. But war will continue to the end, Jesus says, reminding our hearts of the deep brokenness of our world.
Verse 7. In addition to wars among nations and kingdoms, there will be natural and semi-natural disasters. Jesus’s examples are famine and earthquake, and a key distinction between the two is that earthquakes have no human contribution. As a result of the fall, the world manufactures death. We’ve seen it. Haiti, for example ranks in the top ten earthquake death tolls in history. Dan Wales and others who have been there say they are still in the process of beginning to recover. And famine has often been aggravated by human evil. Haven’t you heard of famines in African countries where plenty of food was shipped in, but politics and greed prevented it from being given to the starving? Natural disaster compounded by the evil selfishness of fallen humanity. The greatest famines in our century had almost entirely human causes – China in the early 60’s, because of Mao Tse Tung’s ‘great leap forward’ and Stalin’s intentional starvation of the Ukraine in the 1930’s where 10 million Ukrainians died.
Jesus uses just these two, earthquake and famine, but I doubt if he would object if we pointed to disease, plague, hurricane, blizzard, murder, abuse, genocide, abortion and others as signs that the world is tragically broken and people are tragically fallen and we need an ultimate rescue. But what he tells us, verse 8 is that all these are the beginning of birth pains. The strong implication is that this period goes on for a time: it could be 40 years, it could be 2000. During this time God’s people are not to despair but to recognize that the mounting evil in a fallen world is a sign that an end must come.
If you’ve been in labor or close to someone in labor, you know the initial birth pains, before things get really serious, last hours or days. When they begin you know the end is coming, and you long for it, but you have no idea how long it might be. In the same way these signs show us clearly that the world is so broken that the Son of Man must return to rescue his people and restore his creation. But we don’t know how long this war and famine and earthquake and all these personal and social disasters will continue before he finally says “enough.”
And these are not the only signs. Another is the persecution of God’s people. Verses 9-14: “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. 10And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. 11And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. 12And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. 13But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 14And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”
Even though the word ‘then’ is used to connect these two sections, it seems clear that verse 9 does not refer to a time after verse 8: it is during the "birth pains" that Jesus' disciples will be persecuted and killed. "You" quite clearly extends beyond the immediate disciples and includes all the followers Jesus will have. And we know that persecution of Jesus’ people would break out early, as early as Acts 4, and continue through the whole of early church history and much of church history. Jesus told his disciples that the world would hate them, just as it hated him, and as the labor pains increase, we see this more and more.
Jesus says they will deliver you up to tribulation or persecution, and that you will be put to death and hated by all nations because you bear the name of Jesus. We have talked often about the persecuted church. I thought Randy Alcorn’s book “Safely Home,” despite being fiction, did a good job depicting what it would be like to live in a country like China that actively suppresses the Christian faith. The least of the things that happens to the key Chinese character in the story is that his brilliant career as a history scholar is cut off before it starts.
Instead he is relegated to the job of locksmith in a tiny Chinese town, yet a leader in an underground church. Then he is dragged off into prison, where he is beaten, tortured, starved and neglected. Alcorn paints the picture graphically, and then asserts in his postscript that everything he pictures is based on real events.
As a result, Jesus says, “many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another.” In the book Alcorn weaves in a well-known story, possibly based on an event in Communist Russia, in which three apparent soldiers burst into the house church meeting and offer freedom to any who will deny the faith and leave. And some do, but most don’t. And then the soldiers reveal that they are believers from another house church, testing the integrity of the faithful in the little town. Some will fall away when testing comes.
Some will even betray one another, usually because of compromise with the culture. In Germany most of the state Lutheran Church went along with the extreme nationalism of the Nazis, and became the Reich church, giving allegiance to the Fuhrer and incorporating the ‘Aryan paragraph’ which dismissed all pastors of Jewish descent and even those married to non-Aryans. In response Dietrich Bonhoeffer and many others formed the Confessing Church which held to Biblical standards. But why did so many fall away? Because of strong, strong cultural pressure which argued that the best thing a German could do for church and country was to support a strong central government which would in turn accomplish good things for the people and nation.
I worry that in our day in our country we face the same temptation to compromise Biblical truth because of a strong cultural consensus that tries to convince us the culture is right and the Bible barbaric. Thus we are now seeing Christian prosecutions, in these cake-baking and photography cases, that limit and punish the free exercise of conscience. And there are respected Christians telling us that this exercise of conscience is wrong and hypocritical. But what is freedom of religion if it precludes the personal exercise of conscience?
Verse 11: “And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. 12And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. 13But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” Those who turn away from the faith are deceived by false prophets, and those who hate each other do so because wickedness abounds and love grows cold. Jesus is almost certainly talking about believers who profess the faith but have no permanent heart change. He says that ultimately believers, the ones who are being saved, are the ones who endure. Remember, the New Testament sees salvation as being accomplished in the past, experienced in the present but not finally completed until the end comes or we go to be with the Lord through death.
So it is not only the tragedies of the world around us, the sins of our culture and the pain of families and individuals that cause us to long for that day – it is also the shame of the church which cannot in this day speak with one voice or show the love of Jesus with one heart, but continues to fight within itself – good fights that preserve truth and wicked fights that draw people into false belief, false compromise and false hope. When we see these things we long for Jesus to say enough; his bride is battered, dirtied and weakened but we know he loves her enough to rescue her from this pain.
In fact, verse 14, he will do so when he sees that her task on earth is finished: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” We don’t long with a false hope, we long with the only true hope. As the Gospel of Jesus spreads this time of birth pains nears its end, and when the bride he strengthens and over and over purifies has accomplished the task he leads her into, then the end will come and he will rescue. The rest of the chapter gives details, but the first 14 verses tell us that though we live in a tragically fallen world, our hearts are not wrong to hope for something better. Every tragedy we see strengthens our conviction that this is not the way it is supposed to be, and our hearts are right to look to the skies, to long for the rescue he promises.
In ‘Safely Home’ Randy Alcorn tries to show a heavenly perspective on the suffering and persecution of God’s people. He pictures the saints that have gone before waiting with longing for Jesus to finish what he began on Calvary, to free his people from death and mourning, crying and pain and the old order of things. He refers often to the verse in Revelation where the souls of the martyrs under heaven’s altar cry out “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”
Alcorn pictures, for example, a conversation between two Chinese martyrs who have been watching the suffering of other Chinese Christians: Li Tong looked at Li Manchu. "Day and night the Watchers cry out to our King, but still he has not moved his hand." "He has moved his hand every moment of every day and in the darkest passes of the night," Li Manchu said. "But not as we always wish, nor in ways clearly visible to us-and certainly not visible to them." "But his is a throne of justice. How can justice be so long postponed?" "His is also a throne of grace. The grace is not only to the persecuted, but to the persecutors. If the postponement of justice for one more day brings more image bearers-whether persecuted or persecutors-to grace, so be it."
Why are we still waiting in all the pains of a fallen world? The answer these verses give is one we must take seriously: the Gospel must be preached through all the world as a testimony to all nations. The worst response to pain, tragedy and persecution around us, or to sin, bitterness and doubt within us is to give up on the Good News; maybe it’s not so good, maybe it’s not for everyone, maybe it’s not the only way. No. We have to, in love, preach good news to our culture and our world, news that is really good even if our culture and our world call it many other things and demean it in every way.
We must hold fast to the Gospel: people are hopelessly lost in sin and that’s why this fallen world is full of pain; that God sent his Son Jesus as Rescuer-King to free his people from sin. He paid the price of sin and bore the wrath of God on the cross. He established his victory over sin and death in his resurrection, so that all who put their faith and trust in him receive his victory and are given eternal comfort and good hope through grace. When this good news reaches all who will respond to it, the birth pains will be over, the beginning of the end will be over and the end of the end will usher in the beginning of eternity.