Living In the End Times
April 29, 2012
Many couples enter marriage thinking their spouse is going to be the answer to their needs. Not likely. One of the goals of premarital counseling is to help the couple understand that they will face difficulties like we all do, and to prepare them for living with the realities, the trials and tribulations of married life.
This morning we begin looking at the fifth and final discourse of Jesus found in Matthew’s gospel. This discourse is found in Mt.24:1 through Mt.25:46. In this discourse Jesus gives teaching about the end times. Today we are looking at Mt.24:1-28. In these verses, I believe Jesus teaches that there will be a delay in his coming. And during this time of delay, believers will experience varying degrees of tribulation.
The period in question extends from the ascension of Christ to his second coming. Verses 1-28, describe this period as a time of tribulation. Verses 15-21 identify a very specific time of tribulation when Jerusalem would be destroyed. That occurred in 70 A.D.
Obviously we are in this period of time. It is true that here in the United States we are not currently experiencing much tribulation, but many Christians throughout the world are. And, of course we know that a time of great tribulation will take place before Christ returns. Since tribulation is a reality for believers, it is important for believers to know how to live in the midst of tribulation.
I. BE AWARE. Mt.24:1-8
This discourse is placed during Jesus’ final week before his crucifixion. During the day he was teaching at the temple At night he was staying in Bethany. At some point during that week, as they were leaving Jerusalem, Jesus’ disciples called attention to the impressive temple building. But when Jesus responded he said that the whole temple complex would be thrown down. On the Mt. of Olives, making their way back to Bethany where Jesus was staying, his disciples asked a question about when these things would happen and when Jesus would be coming back. It was a basic question about the end times.
In his response, Jesus identifies a number of indicators which signify the beginning of the end. For example, Jesus says, that some will come claiming to be the Messiah and deceiving many. In fact, this is a problem during the whole time period until Jesus returns. People claim to be the Messiah or Jesus Christ. We see it again in v.23-25. In addition to this Jesus refers to wars and rumors of wars. Nation will rise up against nation. There will be famines and earthquakes. But notice what Jesus says about these things. They are just the beginning of birth pains. There are similar references to these kinds of birth pains in the Old Testament. In Jesus’ day the idea of birth pains was linked to the Messiah.
You say, “Well, famines, earthquakes, wars, and false messiahs were taking place back in the days of the apostles.” Indeed, they have been taking place. In the past few years, many of us have noted the increasing intensity of earthquakes and other natural disasters, and we have wondered if this is what Jesus is referring to. It is. These are signs that it’s going to get worse before it gets better.
Jesus mentions these things so that his disciples, including all of us who know Christ, will not be alarmed. In other words Jesus wants us to be fully aware of what is going to take place before he comes. It’s helpful for us to know this because every so often, someone will look at these signs and make a prediction about the second coming of Christ. But no one knows when Christ is going to return. Someone will look at these signs and he or she will claim to be sent from God to be the Savior. But no, these are just reminders that things are going to get worse before he returns. So Jesus is telling us to be aware. Don’t be surprised at these things. Don’t allow these things to throw you to a point that you might be deceived by a false Christ. Keep your wits about you. Be aware.
II. BE PREPARED. Mt.24:9-11
So, when Jesus says, “then you will be handed over,” when is he referring to? Well it is when we see the beginnings of birth pains. Think about it. Jesus is telling his disciples that they were going to be handed over to be persecuted. But is Jesus only talking about his 12 disciples? I don’t think so. Since Jesus is describing this lengthy period of time up until his second coming, clearly he’s talking about all believers. The period between the ascension and second coming of Christ is characterized by tribulation and persecution for followers of Christ.
How bad can it get? Well, according to Jesus, believers should expect to be persecuted and put to death. This persecution can be so bad that no matter where we go on earth we will be hated because of our faith in Christ. In fact in order to escape persecution, Jesus says that some will abandon the faith and even betray their fellow believers.
We have a prophetic description of just how awful tribulation can get in v.15-21 (read). Jesus briefly describes what would and did happen to Jerusalem in 70 A.D. In these verses Jesus refers to the book of Daniel.
In Daniel’s prophecy we find four references to the abomination that causes desolation. The reference in Dan.11:31 is identified with the defiling of the temple that occurred in 168 B.C. when Antiochus Epiphanes, the ruler of the Selucid empire, overran Jerusalem, killing some 40,000 Jews and enslaving another 40,000 Jews. He outlawed the Jewish religion and set up a statue of Zeus in the Temple and sacrificed a pig on the altar in the temple.
However, it is widely believed that in Mt.24 Jesus is referring to Dan.9:27 and 12:11. These are other references to the abomination that causes desolation. Shortly before 70 A.D. Jerusalem was under siege by the Roman army. During that time many Christians fled the city. In 70 A.D. the city walls were finally breached and Jerusalem was sacked and burned. The temple was completely destroyed and burned. The Jewish historian, Josephus wrote that, “1,100,000 people were killed during the siege, of which a majority were Jewish, and that 97,000 were captured and enslaved.”
You notice in v.21 that Jesus says, “For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now, and never to be equaled again.” But what about the millions slaughtered by Hitler and Stalin? And what about the Great Tribulation that will take place just before the return of Christ? Is Jesus saying that those events are less horrific than the destruction of Jerusalem? No. I understand Jesus to be saying, “Look, this is as bad as it gets.” Similar expressions are found in the Old Testament. In Jer.30:7, referring to the time when Babylon conquered Jerusalem in 586 BC, God says, “How awful that day will be! None will be like it. It will be a time of trouble for Jacob, but he will be saved out of it.” In Dan.12:1, we read, “At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise. There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then. But at that time your people–everyone whose name is found written in the book–will be delivered.” Many believe this is a reference to the Great Tribulation. And I see v.15-21 as being not just a prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem, but also a harbinger of the great tribulation to come. Jesus is teaching his followers that they must be prepared to suffer persecution.
In our day there are more martyrs for Christ than ever before. I recently read that well over 100,000 believers are martyred every year. And some estimates go as high as 171,000. Many more than this are experiencing persecution. The fact that we in the United States are not persecuted should not lull us into passivity. We have a responsibility to pray for and support our brothers and sisters in Christ. It is true, “Out of sight, out of mind.” But it’s not really out of sight. There is plenty of information about how Christians are being persecuted. We must be prepared to suffer. To the believers in Philippi, Paul writes, “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him...” We must be prepared.
III. STAND FIRM. Mt.24:12-13
The reason Jesus is giving this instruction is to encourage his followers to persevere to the end. Do you remember the parable of the soils? When Jesus explains about the seed that fell on the rocky soil he says, “The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away.” In Mt.26:31 Jesus is talking to his disciples, just before his betrayal. We read, “Then Jesus told them, ‘This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written:’ ’I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’”
The same word for “fall away” is used in Mt.24:10. Here it clearly refers to apostasy, turning away from Christ. Persecution puts us to the test. Persecution purifies the church, separating those who stand firm for Christ from those who turn away.
In the 3rd century there were many Christians who became known as Lapsi because in the face of persecution they lasped in their faith. Instead of standing for Christ, they renounced Christ and offered incense to the Roman emperor. At that time there were some church leaders who felt that those who lasped in their faith should not be received back into the church. After all they had sold out. Other leaders felt that if these people were repentant that they should be welcomed back into the church. It’s a serious matter. I call your attention back to Mt.26:31. Peter fell away. He turned away from Jesus, but Jesus welcomed him back. We see Peter’s repentant heart in Jn.21 when Jesus asked him three times, “Peter, do you love me?”
Brothers and sisters, it’s difficult to say how each of us would respond in the face of persecution. In Mt.16:25-26, Jesus says, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” The way to stand firm to the end is to stand firm in the present. Are you a Christian? Do others know you are a Christian? Are you ashamed of Jesus Christ? Are you ashamed to publically own Christ as your Savior, Lord and Master?
Jesus says that in this time of tribulation, because of the increase of wickedness the love of most will grow cold. One of the primary marks of a Christian life is love. In Jn.13:34-35, Jesus says to his disciples, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Part of standing firm to the end is maintaining a fervent love for the Lord and for our brothers and sisters in the Lord.
The Lord Jesus is speaking to us about this matter. We are living in this period of tribulation. If we in the United States are not able to stand firm for Christ and his church now, how will we fare when we face real tribulation? What does it mean to you to stand firm for Christ? Are you standing firm for Christ, and how is that reflected in your everyday behavior?
IV. DECLARE THE GOSPEL. Mt.24:14
How very interesting this is. Our first inclination upon hearing that we will be facing tribulation is to avoid it, to maintain a low profile, and to not make waves. But that’s not at all what believers are to do. Believers are to be part of a worldwide announcing of the Gospel.
How do we present the gospel? We present the gospel when we bear testimony of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ God has provided the only way to be saved from our sins. In Jesus Christ God has opened the only door into his eternal kingdom of “righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Jesus Christ is our savior for he bore our guilt and paid the punishment of our sins when he died and rose from the grave. This is the Gospel we are to proclaim.
How do we do this? Well, we try do it just about any way we can. Of course the physical presence of local churches helps to establish centers from which the gospel is proclaimed. And then as individual believers we are to be salt and light to our world. As salt we seek to preserve a standard of Godly virtue and morality on the earth. As light we seek to help others see that the life Christ gives us through faith is the best kind of life one can have. Part of the problem is that as believers we can be so affected by our culture that our light is dulled. We blend right in with the world. Our goals and values are often no different than the world. And so our children do not grow up with a sense that as Christians we are different. We are not here to just enjoy ourselves and live for ourselves. We are not striving to find the good life like everyone else, because we already have the best life in Christ.
Another hindrance to our presenting the gospel, is that many believers are themselves victims of the world. Many believers have been raised in dysfunction and hurt. They are carrying deep wounds and anger. And it is difficult. But Christ has come to help us face the realities of our lives and he has come to bring healing to these deep wounds. Healing begins when we face the truth about ourselves. The truth often hurts, but it is the truth that can set us free. In fact part of our witness is to seek the maturity and wholeness that Christ can give.
So here we are in church this morning, and I imagine that most of us profess to be Christians. We are followers of Jesus Christ. At the same time, all of us have various goals and responsibilities that shape our lives. It was the same for Jesus. In Jn.9:3 Jesus said, “As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work.” One time when Jesus was hungry the disciples urged him to eat something and Jesus said in Jn.4:34, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.” In Jn.17:4, Jesus said, “I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do.” Finally in Heb.12:2, we read, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Men and women, I am urging us to recognize that as Christians our primary goal and responsibility in all of life is to live out the gospel and to declare the gospel.
There’s an old chorus written by Al Smith. The words go, “With eternity’s values in view Lord; With eternity’s values in view, May I live each day for Jesus, With eternity’s values in view.” In the Olivet discourse we are looking towards eternity. Jesus calls us to live with eternity’s values in view. For now, we live in a time of tribulation and It’s important that we are aware, prepared, standing firm, and declaring the gospel. Amen