Posted by: stpowen | February 1, 2016

Suffering and the Return of Christ

From a sermon preached on Matthew 24:1-14 at Scott Drive church, Exmouth.

Isaiah 66:15. ‘For behold, the LORD will come with fire and with His chariots, like a whirlwind, to render His anger, and His rebuke with flames of fury.’

Mark 13:35-37. “Watch therefore, for you do not know when the Master of the house is coming- in the evening, at midnight, at the crowing of the rooster, or in the morning- lest, coming suddenly, He find you sleeping.  And what I say to you, I say to all: Watch!”

We have arrived at the start of the New Year, and looking forward to 2016 with, perhaps a degree of trepidation.  The country is, sort of, at war and since the attacks in France there is the terrible threat of terrorism hanging over us.  The prophet Jeremiah warned Judah in Jer. 5:6, ‘A leopard shall watch over their cities’ and so it feels for us; a malign force seems to be waiting for the moment to strike.

In addition to that, it is becoming more and more difficult to be an evangelical Christian.  Certain Christian views, which would have been considered mainstream just a few years ago, are now completely unacceptable in the minds of many, and Christians may lose their jobs and preachers may be arrested just for voicing them.  And things seem likely to get worse in this respect rather than better.

So with this in mind, let us read Matthew 24:1-14 together, paying particular attention to verse 14.

In Chapter 23, the Lord Jesus has been giving the most furious condemnation to the religious hierarchy of Israel.  “You snakes!  You brood of vipers!  How will you escape the condemnation of hell?” (v.33). This is pretty strong stuff!  We don’t hear too many sermons on that text these days.  Perhaps we should.  Anyway, in 24:1, Jesus is walking out of the temple area and his disciples are perhaps trying to distract Him and soften Hs mood a little.  “Look, Teacher!  What massive stones!  What magnificent buildings!” (Mark 13:1).  This, of course was the Temple as enlarged and beautified by King Herod the Great shortly before our Lord’s birth.  It was indeed vast and impressive.  The Jewish writer Josephus declared that anyone who had not seen the Temple in Jerusalem had never seen a beautiful building.  And is this huge building really going to be destroyed so utterly that not one stone shall be left upon another?  Ridiculous!  It couldn’t happen!  Imagine someone saying that about St. Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London; you might say, “Impossible!”  Imagine, before September 11th 2001, someone saying it of the World Trade Centre; people would have scoffed at him.  Yet it did happen, and in AD 70, just 40 years after our Lord foretold it, the Roman soldiers came to Jerusalem and the whole Temple was utterly destroyed.  One part of the wall left for the Jews to pray against, but the rest obliterated so completely that future generations found it hard to believe that anything had ever been built there.

So a little later the disciples came to Him, and it’s very important to the understanding of Matt. 24 that you note that the disciples asked Him three question, and He answers three questions.  If you don’t see that, you will get into the most hopeless mess.

The questions are:

  1. When will these things (the destruction of the Temple) be?
  2. What signs will there be?
  3. How will this present age end?

The Lord Jesus answers all these questions and the trick is, as you go through the whole chapter, to know which question He’s answering at any particular time.  But the first 14 verses, which we shall look at tonight, is a sort of introduction, and He’s talking about the whole time from His ascension into heaven, which was just a few weeks away, and His return in glory, so these verses applied to the disciples then, and they apply equally today.  ‘For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we, through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope’ (Rom. 15:4).

In verses 1-12, Jesus speaks of seven things that we may expect to see during this present age:

  1. Deception, especially over the return of Christ (vs. 4-5)
  2. Wars and rumours of wars (vs. 6-7).
  3. Natural disasters (v.7)
  4. Persecutions (v.9).
  5. Apostasy & betrayal (v.10).
  6. False prophets bringing more deception (v.11).
  7. Increasing wickedness and lack of love among Christians (v.12).

Well this is a rather gloomy set of predictions!  Perhaps you’re thinking, “I didn’t come here today to be depressed!  Why can’t we hear something encouraging?”  Well, I hope that by the time I’ve finished you will be encouraged, but when we see these dreadful things going on today, and we certainly do, we need to remember that they are nothing new.  They have been going on all through the Christian era, so if they weren’t happening somewhere in the world pretty regularly the Bible wouldn’t be true.  Let’s run through them quickly.

  1. 4-5. “Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and deceive many.”

False teaching and deception have been about right from the beginning.   We see it forewarned in Acts 20:28-31, and it is already in the churches by the time Peter, Jude and John wrote their epistles (eg. 2 Peter 2:1-2; 1 John 4:1; 2 John 7; Jude 4).  Given the context of Matt. 24, which is basically apocalyptic, our Lord is saying that not everything that seems to be a sign of the end of the world actually is.  We are to beware of people saying that Christ has already come invisibly (hyper-preterism), that they know that He’s coming on a certain day (Harold Camping) or that they themselves are in some way God’s anointed spokesman (various bizarre end-time cults).  When Christ returns, everybody’s going to know about it (v.27).

Vs. 6-7a. “And you will hear of wars and rumours of wars.  See to it that you are not troubled, for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.  For nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom.”

We don’t have ‘rumours of wars’ today.  Everything is on the news or internet almost as soon as it happens, but until the 20th Century you only heard vague reports of what was happening in China or South America.  During the Boer War in South Africa around 1900, it took many weeks for news to arrive in Britain as to how our troops were faring.  But now we get wars and killings on the news 24 hours of the day, and it’s natural to think, “What’s going on?  Is the world spiralling out of control?  What is God doing?”

But the Lord Jesus says, “See to it that you are not troubled.”  It’s quite a strong imperative.  You can be appalled, shocked or disgusted at the stuff going on in the world today, but not alarmed or troubled in your spirit.  “For all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.”  If there were no wars, then the Bible wouldn’t be true.  As a matter of fact, these statements may have been more surprising to His disciples than they are to us.  Our Lord was speaking in a time of unparalleled peace, the Pax Romana.  From the time of the Battle of Actium in BC 34 until around AD 180, Rome was so dominant that there were very few wars.  This one great exception to that was the civil wars that broke out in AD 69 leading to the death of Nero and the ‘Year of the Four Emperors,’ and the following year that saw the destruction of Jerusalem.  So in AD 30, when our Lord spoke, people may have been quite surprised to hear that there would be continuing wars.

But why must things like wars happen?  It is because of sin.  ‘Where do wars and fights come from among you?  Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members?  You lust and do not have.  You murder and covet and cannot obtain.  You fight and battle’ (James 4:1-2).  Wars and violence come from covetousness, selfishness and lust for power.  And this has been going on ever since the Lord Jesus spoke these words, and will be going on until He returns.  ‘For nation will rise against nation.’  It’s been going on all through history.  It is God’s righteous judgement that sinful men and women are not going to live in a perfect world.  ‘Therefore just as through one man [Adam] sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death came to all men, because all men sinned…..’ (Rom. 5:12).  But it wasn’t always this way, when God made the world and pronounced it, ‘very good.’  The world is fallen through sin, and death, disease and disaster is the result.  The Cosmos itself is in a fallen state.  ‘And there will be famines, pestilences  and earthquakes in various places.’  Exactly as we see it today.

But look at verse 8:  ‘All these are the beginning of sorrows.’  Readers will know that I use the NKJV translation almost exclusively on this blog.  All in all I consider it to be the most reliable translation available today.  However at this point I believe that it errs in following the Authorized Version too closely.  The Greek word translated ‘sorrows’ is odin,  and I believe it would be better rendered ‘birth pains’ or ‘labour pains,’ as in 1 Thes. 5:3.  When one enters a maternity ward, one hears cries and moans of great pain, and one might think that someone is dying, but no- someone’s coming to birth!

With this thought in mind, read carefully Romans 8:18-22.  ‘For I consider that the suffering of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.  For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God.  For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly,  but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.  For we know that the whole creation groans and labours with birth pangs together [Gk. sunodino] until now.’  The world as we see it is not as it was when God created it, but nor is it as it will be.  Today there is hardship and suffering, death and disease, but this is not God’s plan for the world.  Something better is coming to birth!

The Bible speaks of only two ages:  the present [evil] age (Gal. 1:4) and the age to come (Matt. 12:32; Mark 10:30; Luke 20:34-35).  With the coming of the Lord Jesus, the age to come broke in upon this present age, and even now Christ is gathering a people for Himself.  Consider Revelation 6 and the opening of the seals.  Jesus Christ is the Rider on the white horse (v.2. cf. 19:11), and He is going forth all through this age to sack, as it were, the borders of hell, and bring in a people to Himself.  But this is done against a background of war (vs. 3-4), famine (vs. 5-6), death (vs. 7-8) and persecution of God’s people (vs. 9-11).

Therefore we read in v.9 of our text, ‘Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My names sake’ (cf. Matt. 5:10-12).  This was the truth for the Apostles, truth during the Roman Empire, and truth all down the years to the present day.  Persecution.   And because we haven’t had it for a while in Britain, it doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been going on all over the world at various times.  Last year was the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, when a million or more Armenian Christians were slaughtered by the Ottoman Turks.

V.10. ‘And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will betray one another and will hate one another.’

This is a falling away from the faith; how we have seen this in Britain in recent times.  People cease to follow clear Christian teaching because it no longer appears mainstream, and those who are upholding Biblical morality are betrayed by those upon whose support they thought they could rely.   It reminds me of Groucho Marx; “Those are my principles, sir, and if you don’t like them…….I have others!”  But we should not suppose that this is a uniquely modern phenomenon.  At the time of the Restoration of Charles II, and again at the beginning of the 18th Century, many supposed Puritans and evangelicals departed from Biblical Christianity so as to receive preferment in the new regimes.

V.11. ‘Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many.’  This would be a more general kind of false teaching to that described in v.5.  Once again, this has been going on all through Church history.  The heresy of Arius finds its counterpart today in the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  There is nothing new under the sun.

V.12.  ‘And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many  will grow cold.’  One thing leads to another.  False teaching often leads to a downgrading of the Ten Commandments- lawlessness; and lawlessness leads to a coldness towards God.  People in this condition do not abandon the faith altogether, but they lose their love for Christ and become nominal Christians, coming to church when it suits, or not at all.  Of course, some professing Christians are in this condition all their lives.  Christianity to them is purely formal- just going through a ritual.  Lord Melbourne, Prime Minister in the reign of Queen Victoria, once declared, “Things have come to a pretty pass if religion is going to get personal!”

But how can anyone’s love grow cold when he thinks of what our Lord suffered to save sinners like us, the Innocent for the guilty?  ‘But he who endures to the end shall be saved’ (v.13).  The one who truly loves the Lord Jesus, and trusts in His blood shed for sinners on the cross, will be saved, but persecution and trouble are what separates the wheat from the chaff.  Following Jesus can cost you ridicule; it can cost you friends; in some cases it can cost you your job, even in this nation.  In some countries it can cost you your family, your freedom and your life.  Our Lord bids us count the cost (Luke 14:28-33).   But Jesus Christ is either worth everything or he is worth nothing.  If Christianity is false, it’s not worth a second thought, but if it’s true- and it is gloriously true- it’s worth everything, infinitely more than money or fame or sex or fast cars:  it’s the pearl of great price (Matt. 13:45-46), and nothing can be compared to it.  So we stand firm in the faith, and we are saved.

V.14. ‘And this Gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all nations, and then the end will come.’  So finally we arrive at verse 14.  The Gospel started on the Day of Pentecost with just a few people in an upper room, and it has been spread all over the world, almost always in great weakness.  We think of great missionaries like William Carey, John Paton and James Hudson Taylor; none of them came from wealthy or privileged backgrounds- Carey was a cobbler- but in God’s strength they were able to do amazing things.  We notice that the Gospel is to be preached ‘as a witness.’  It is not to be supposed that everybody in the world will be saved.  Many will reject the Gospel and laugh in our faces as they do it, but the Gospel must be preached in every land.

When will the work be done?  God will decide that, but there is plenty still to do.  The F.I.E.C. has identified fifty towns in Britain that have no Gospel church in them.  If that is true of Britain, what about France, Spain or Saudi Arabia?  Does this not show us the need to support Bible-believing missions and missionaries?  2 Peter3:12 tells us that we can hasten the coming of the Day of God.  Let us be about out it by personal witnessing to our friends and neighbours and by supporting those in foreign lands.  This poor broken world is not meant to last forever.  It is in the throes of rebirth.

‘And then the end will come.’  The end of this present evil age.  The end of death and disease and want; the end of suffering and sickness and sorrow; the end of sin- the last relic of sin in us will be destroyed as we receive our new resurrection bodies.  But it will also be a beginning.  The beginning of unclouded joy for all God’s people- life in the very presence of God.

‘And on this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all people a feast of choice pieces, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of well-refined wines on the lees. And He will destroy on this mountain the surface of the covering cast over all people, and the veil that is spread over all nations.  He will swallow up death forever, and the LORD God will wipe away tears from all faces; the rebuke of His people He will take away from the earth; for the LORD has spoken’ (Isaiah 25:6-8).

 

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