That's a great promise, indeed. If you have your Bibles, I would invite you to turn with me to Matthew chapter 24. Today we come to a new section of the gospel of Matthew. Its the second longest of the six sermons that Matthew records from our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching in this section has reference to events that would transpire shortly after Jesus' death, resurrection and ascension. But the teaching of this passage also has reference to events that still await fulfillment, including the second coming of our Lord, and so this passage before us today and for several weeks to come – in Matthew 24 and 25 – is prophetic. That is, it speaks of the end times, or to use the technical term, it speaks of 'eschatology'. The word just means the study of the end times.
Now, when you mention the word, eschatology, that stirs some interesting reaction from intelligent Christian lay people. Some people immediately think of the rather bazaar literature that is available on the subject of the end times, and perhaps we have all read some of that from time to time ourselves. I can remember when I was young, in fact when I was in 7th grade, picking up a copy of Hal Lindsey's, The Late Great Planet Earth. Now I shared that with a friend of mine who was Baptist but who had not yet made a profession of faith and joined his church. I gave it to him and the next week he came back and he said, “You know, I made a profession of faith and was baptized last Sunday night!” His mother even called to thank me for sharing the book. But I also remember taking that book to my pastor and saying, “Boy, this book is great! What do you think?” I remember how disappointed I was. His version of the end times was a lot more boring than Hal Lindsey's. Now, upon more mature reflection, I trust that his version was much more theologically accurate, but at any rate, at the time, I was very much disappointed.
Perhaps, though, when you think of eschatology, or the end times, you think of the fact that many good men, faithful teachers of the word, have differences on how all of this is going to work out and perhaps that leads you to think that even if the theologians can't figure this out, then maybe we're better off just not thinking about it or talking about that very much. But, that would be a tragedy for several reasons: First of all, because a significant portion of the New Testament is taken up with teaching on the end times. Jesus and Paul and many of the other apostles addressed themselves to very important issues connected with the fulfillment of prophesy and the end times. Secondly, the lion's share of teaching in the New Testament about the end times is crystal clear. The main outlines of new testament teaching about the way of the end, about the way the Lord is going to cause things to unfold, is absolutely crystal clear. And finally, in the New Testament, eschatology or teaching about the end times is directly connected to Christian ethics, or to put it another way, the New Testament teaching about the end times is always directly tied to the daily living of the Christian life. Our understanding of what the new testament teaches about the end times is very important in our motivation for and living out of the Christian life.
And so today, we're going to take up consideration of the Lord Jesus' words to His disciples here in Matthew 24 where He sets forth His practical teaching about the end times. So let's turn to Matthew 24, beginning in verse 1. This is God's holy and inspired word:
Our Father, we do thank you for this word, and we ask that You would enable us by the Spirit to hear both it's admonitions and it's encouragements. To Your glory, for the good of the church and for the sake of our own souls, we ask it in Jesus' name, amen.
Realistic expectations are essential to the success of any venture. If you don't know what you're getting into when you start something, you are very liable to discouragement when you're in the middle of it and you run into difficulties and obstacles. Many of us can draw up pictures in our own mind perhaps of competitive sports teams that we have supported in the past who were particularly good at their competitive sport, but on their schedule they were set up to play a team which was very inferior, and you got nervous the whole week ahead because you knew they could suffer a let down. And sure enough, your worst dreams came true and during the event, they showed themselves to be flat and unprepared, and struggling against the team vastly inferior to their abilities and skills. You had to think to yourself, “either the coaching staff did a bad job of preparing them, or the players themselves, had not done a good job of preparing themselves mentally for this type of challenge”. If you're not prepared ahead of time with realistic expectation about what you're going to go through, you are liable to run into trouble.
In a more serious setting, perhaps some of you have been students of the Napoleonic Wars and you know that prior to the battle of Waterloo, Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, called together his captains and generals and adjutants, and said, “Now here's the plan. We have an international army many of whom have never fought with one another before. We are going up against the greatest offensive general in the history of warfare – Napoleon – and his army is made up of all his veterans from the imperial campaigns. We are slightly outnumbered. Therefore, my plan is going to be to let him pound away at us all day long, and our only goal is going to be to hold together until Otto von Blucher, the Prince of Bismarck, comes to our rescue. And when his Prussian army comes in, then we'll have enough to take on Napoleon, and we will win in the end.” Can you imagine if Wellington had not told those forces what they were going to be doing all day long, which was being pounded upon by Napoleon's armies? Sure enough, it worked out just as Wellington told them it was going to be. But he prepared them to be expecting punishment all day long in order to win in the end.
Again, very seriously, perhaps some in this very room remember the serious council that Winston Churchill gave to the British people when they prepared to stand alone, in Europe, against Germany. He said to them ahead of time, “I promise you only blood, sweat, toil and tears.” He did not say to them, “this battle against the Germans is going to easy. It will be won overnight. It will be no problem.” He set their expectations to understand just how difficult and just how much it was going to cost them to go up against the Germans, alone in the free world.
Realistic expectations are absolutely essential for the success of any venture, especially one that is going up against great obstacles. And friends, the same is true for the Christian life. If you become a Christian thinking that you're never again going to have a struggle against sin, you are going to be sorely disappointed, and perhaps even despondent and despairing when the reality hits you.
In this passage, Jesus is explaining to the disciples and to us what we are to expect in this world and from this world, between the two comings, between the first coming of Christ and His ascension, and the second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. But He is also exhorting us in this passage to obedience and courage in four specific ways. I'll look at the passage with you just briefly this morning. There are two parts to the passage and if you look at verses 1 through 3, you will see the first part – the second part comes in verses 4 through 14 – and in verses 1 through 3, the disciples are looking around the temple mound, the magnificent temple mound, and Jesus has already said some things to them that bother them and so they begin asking Him questions. And He says to them something that shakes them up and so they ask two questions. And so, verses 1 through 3 give you two questions which are asked by the disciples to the Lord Jesus. And those two questions actually reveal to you some mistaken thinking on the part of the disciples themselves, and we'll talk about that in a minute.
Then, in verses 4 through 14, you see the response to the Lord Jesus Christ to these two questions. In that response, Jesus gives some very important pastoral council, not just to his disciples, but to every believer in every nation, in every generation between then and the second coming. And I'd like to look at these with you today.
I. Christians must submit all their thinking to Christ.
First of all, let's look at verses 1 through 3: The disciples mistaken understanding is shown in the very questions that they ask. And let me just propose to you that as we look at verse through 3, one of the things we learn is this: Christians must submit all their thinking to Christ. Now you're saying, “how in the world do you get that from these verses”? Hold that thought and we'll come back to it in a moment. Jesus has just made a most stunning assertion. In fact, He's made a stunning series of assertions in Matthew, chapter 23. For instance, in Matthew 23, verse 38 Jesus has just said in His final public sermon, that God is going to leave the temple of Jerusalem desolate. Now here they are, the disciples are walking amongst the temple mound. You know what's going on, of course. During the time that Jesus is speaking these words to the disciples.
About twenty years before Jesus is speaking these words, Herod had started a tremendous rebuilding project, an expansion project in the temple, and in fact that project would go on for another 20 or so years, all the way to AD 66, and this temple mound would become one of the greatest structures in all antiquity. Edersheim says that it was the greatest sacred structure in its situation and its architecture in either ancient times or modern. The rabbis who lived after the destruction – who did not particularly like Herod – even those rabbis said, that if you have not seen the temple of Herod, you have not seen a beautiful building. It was one of the most fabled structures in all of the ancient world. And here the disciples are, walking around and admiring it. Of course, its not only for them a gorgeous structure, it represents to them the very heart and soul of their religion and the very physical sign of God's presence with his people. After all, they knew what Psalm 122 said – you might want to sneak a peek right now and see what Psalm 122 says. They sang Psalm 122, Lord's day after lunch, Saturday after Saturday in the synagogues.
And here Jesus is saying that temple which He loves so much, that temple which is a sign of God's presence with you is going to be destroyed, and in fact not a stone will stand upon a stone. There will be pervasive destruction, and the Lord's words must have seemed strange and inconceivable to the disciples. “how can this be? How can it be that God would visit his final destruction upon Jerusalem? How could it be that God would visit the final destruction upon the temple and leave it desolate?” Basically, they put their minds together and they did some reflection. The other gospels tell us that they sent a spokesman, the inner circle of disciples, to ask Jesus this question, and here's what they came up with. Basically the disciples decided, “Okay, if Jerusalem is going to be destroyed, then that must mean that God's final judgment of the world is coming. For surely Jerusalem will stand to the very last day. And if God's final judgment of the world is coming, that must mean that Christ is going to immediately set up his kingdom, and we will reign with Him.” And being good Jews, they postulated that there would be certain signs to foretell when this was going to happen in the next few years – The coming of Christ's kingdom, the judgment of the world, their reigning with Christ.
And so they asked Jesus two distinct but related questions: They asked “when is this going to happen?” And, “what are going to be the signs?” And in Christ's great answer which we find in this passage and in the passages that follow Jesus is concerned to correct their faulty understanding, but also to set forth his positive teaching about the end times.
So let me come back with what I said that we learned from this passage among other things. Christians must submit their thinking to Christ. There is nothing more important in living a healthy Christian life, than for us to deliberately submit our thinking to Christ. The disciples were mistaken in their thinking about what was just about to transpire. And so it was vital that their thinking be corrected. If Jesus had allowed them to go on with their misunderstandings without attempting to correct them, they would have been utterly discouraged and totally despairing when the things came about that were going to come about.
And so, when our thinking is out of sync with the Scriptures, we are in no less danger than the disciples. When our thinking is out of sync with the Scriptures, we are vulnerable to discouragement, to despair, to temptation and to sin. And so it must be among our great priorities to see that our thinking, our believing, is conformed to the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ and the Scriptures. And there's no where more important for that to be the case than our thinking about the 'end times', because there's always someone peddling to you their version of the 'end times'. We must submit our thinking to what Jesus teaches.
Don Parsons says this of this passage: “In the previous chapter (Matthew 23) it ends with Jesus' powerful prediction that the sins of Israel would be called to account in this generation.” You'll find that in verse 36, chapter 23. Then, He says that Jerusalem's house is about to be desolate, you'll find that in verse 38. Jesus would not be seen again by the populace at large until His glorious return when the cry would go up, “blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” That's in verse 39. So it is not surprising, therefore, that the disciples would link the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple with the return of Jesus. In their minds, those two events were linked, and it is that which He must correct in their understanding.
II. Christians must prepare for opposition not triumph until the coming of Christ.
So we see, in verses 4 through 14, Jesus' response. But in this response, He not only tells the disciples something that is important for them in the next few years, and He not only tells them about things that will happen in years to come – hundreds of years to come – He gives them an authoritative pastoral council which is immediately relevant to their daily living at that time, and is immediately relevant to our daily living of the Christian life, even now. It is authoritative pastoral council to Christians, all Christians, in every generation, in every nation between the two advents.
Now, I'd like you to see in these verses this grand theme: that the Christian must prepare for opposition – not triumph – until the coming of Christ. Christ has told us to prepare for opposition until He should come again. Let's look at the passage together. In verse 4 through 14, Jesus corrects the disciples' mistaken notions and He offers them some sober anecdotes for their false triumphism. They thought, “Okay, if Jerusalem is going to be destroyed, that means the judgment is going to come and if the judgment is going to come, that means that Christ is going to set up His glorious kingdom, and we're going to reign as kings with Him! Victory is come! Triumph is come!” The Lord Jesus wants to say to these disciples, “You have no idea what you are about to step into, and if you go into what you are about to step into, thinking that triumph is just around the corner, you're going to be utterly despairing.”
I want you to note several things. I wish we had weeks to work through this passage because Jesus' teaching is so dense with its suggestions. We'll just have to hit the high points. Let's look together then at verses 4 through 12, and I want you to note several things.
First: the signs that are listed here in verses 4 through 12 do not tell us that the end is near. The signs that are listed in verses 4 through 12 do not tell us that the end is near. All these things occurred in the lifetime of the disciples to whom Jesus was speaking and in spite of that clear warning, over and over, we have people who appeal to these verses – verses 4 through 12 – as verses giving signs of the second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. In fact, we have people who go so far as telling us the timing of the second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, and this passage is a standing warning against that kind of thing. Perhaps many of you picked up a copy of that book that was produced twelve or so years ago called, 88 reasons that Christ is returning in 1988. Missed! There are still people who think that they can predict the time of Christ's coming and this passage is a standing warning against that kind of thing.
Notice also, especially in verses 6 and 7, and 14, that Jesus indicates that there will be a substantial period before His coming, before the end. He stresses in verse 6, “the end is not yet.” That's so important to see. Liberal scholars come to Jesus' teaching on the end times and they often say this: “Jesus clearly thought that He was going to come again during the lifetime of His disciples, at least during the lifetime of John. He clearly thought that.” Jesus teaching is very explicit. He expected a substantial period of time before the end. He says in verse 8: “This is only the beginning”; in verse 7: “Remember, it takes time for nation to rise against nation”, and in verse 14: “It takes time for the gospel to go to the end of the earth.” Jesus clearly expected a substantial period of time to elapse before the end.
Thirdly, notice in verse 6 that He makes clear that the destruction of Jerusalem will not mark the end of the age. “the end is not yet.” And so the question that the disciples ask, “when is this going to happen and what are the signs?” And, “what about your coming and what about the end of the age?” Those are distinct issues.
Notice again in verse 9 that Jesus makes it clear that the full glory of the kingdom is not going to come when the temple is destroyed. Indeed, there is going to be persecution. Christians are to expect to be persecuted and endure tribulation. And finally, as Jesus speaks to the disciples, He is not encouraging them to engage in end times speculation or to be preoccupied with signs, but rather He is warning them against being deceived and He is encouraging them, He is exhorting them to endure.
Now, what does Jesus say that the time between his comings is going to be like? If you look at this passage, you will see six things that He says about what the times are going to be like in between his first coming and his second coming. First, in verses 4 and 5, He tells us that the church is going to be afflicted by false messiahs. There are going to be those who claim to be the coming Lord Jesus Christ, whether they be Sung Yung Moon, or whether they be David Koresh, or whether they be Jim Jones. In every generation there will be some who claim to be the Messiah returned. And by the way, Jesus doesn't say in this passage, but He's going to say it several times in the passages to come, in Matthew 24 and 25, He says to Christians, “Look, if you have any doubt in your mind about the claim of someone that they are the Messiah, it's not the Messiah, because My coming is unmistakable.” Jesus says, “When I come, I'm coming on clouds of glory and the whole world will see Me.” So if you think, “Now, I wonder if this is the Messiah,” the answer is “No”! Because no one can possibly miss the coming of the Messiah. Jesus makes that clear. He says, “Don't be deceived when people come and claim to be Me returned.”
In verses 6 and 7, He makes it clear, secondly, that there will be war, there will be international strife and conflict, there will be famine and earthquakes and though the Jews saw those things as signs of the end of the age, Jesus says, “those are not the signs of the end of the age, but be assured that those things will happen and they will impact Christians.”
In verse 9, He says that believers are going to be hated, persecuted, and killed. So much for the triumphant victory expectations in the disciples. Hated, persecuted, killed? Yes, that's your expectation.
Verse 10: fourthly, He says that many believers are going to fall away, and they are going to betray others. So things are not going to be all rosy in the church. Things are not going to be perfect within the kingdom of God, visible.
Verse 11: He says there are going to be false prophets in the church who mislead, and finally, in verse 12, He says there is even going to be lawlessness, and lovelessness between the advents. In other words, what's the picture? The picture is not of total perfection and triumph. Jesus is saying, “I want you to be prepared for the difficulty ahead. The kingdom of heaven is not going to be upon earth between my comings.”
And so, He gives us at least 4 pieces of practical instruction – both warning and encouragement for the living out of the Christian life in the here and now, in these passages, and you will see them in verse 4, in verse 6, and 13 and 14. Let me briefly point you to them: First of all, He says, “do not be deceived” (verse 4), Do not be deceived. Don't be misled. Don't preoccupy yourself with signs. Be on your guard. He's telling us that there are going to be many false prophets, many false messiahs, not only in His time, but in ours. And so, we must not be misled, and of course, in order not to be misled, we must know what? We must know his word. We must know the truth in order not to be misled by error, and so this commits Christians to a standing study of God's word, so that we might not be misled by false teaching.
Secondly, in verse 6, He says, “don't be disturbed.” Don't be frightened. Don't be discouraged. Don't be despairing. Don't be despondent when you see these tremendously unsettling events occur. Don't think, “Oh, no, God didn't know this was coming. Oh, no, God isn't really in control. Oh, no, the Lord's Church is in danger of being extinguished.” Jesus is saying, “No, no. Don't be frightened, don't be disturbed, don't be discouraged by this. I know this is coming. God planned it and God will bring you though this.”
Thirdly, He says in verse 13, and this is actually a word of encouragement… He say, “all who endure will be saved.” Look at His words. “the one who endures to the end, He will be saved.” He's really not putting a condition on our salvation at that point, but this is actually a word of encouragement. What He is saying is this: “I know what I am calling you to is difficult, but there is a hope at the end of your travail.” There is a crown of glory set before you in your struggle, and so everyone who endures will receive that crown of glory, will receive the full blessings of God's salvation. Those who remain loyal to Christ will enter into glory, Hendrickson says. By the way, this is the great and general emphasis of this whole section of Jesus' teaching. He is exhorting his disciples to persevere and to endure the things that they are going to face, because “He who stands firm to the end shall be saved.” And then fourthly, He says, “the kingdom is going to be proclaimed to the nations.” This is an encouragement regarding the scope of the kingdom. Jewish proclamation indicated some of the signs mentioned in verses 4 through 12, before the end of the age in their view, but no where was there a prediction of the coming of the Gentiles to God, before the end of the age. Jesus is saying, “by the way, I am going to draw the nations to myself before I come again.” This is an encouragement. He is saying, “this is going to happen prior to the Messiah's return. The Gentiles are going to be evangelized.” And by the way, this obviously is going to take a significant amount of time. That work begins, of course, at least as early as Pentecost, but it goes on even now, and of course, it obviously requires a significant duration for its fulfillment. So He says, 'the gospel is going to be proclaimed, this gospel, My gospel, the gospel of the kingdom'. The gospel that the reign of God has been brought into our hearts and lives through the rule of Christ, its been established by grace, its been received by faith, that gospel is going to be preached to the nations. And therefore, we ought to take encouragement – encouragement that there will be victory in the end.
And of course, it also means that we ourselves, if we are going to take encouragement of that, must be a part of that proclamation. The Lord Jesus, of course, before He ascends into heaven, will explicitly say to his disciples, “you are to preach My gospel to every creature.” You are to go out into all the world proclaiming this gospel. And so, these four important practical pieces of instruction are embedded in the midst of this passage about the end times. Now, all of our end time thinking ought to be governed by the clear teaching of Scripture. It ought to be governed by Jesus' practical emphasis. We ought to take courage from the assurance of the final promise. We, ourselves, ought to determine to allow our thinking to be guided by Jesus' focus, by Jesus' emphasis, as we prepare for the end of time. We must simultaneously have a full and firm hope in his coming, His bodily, His physical return. And also we must be prepared to follow his directives in the meantime.
And as we study this great passage together, we'll be able to follow through the rest of his teaching about the days to come. Let's pray:
Our heavenly Father, we ask, O Lord, that You would build in us a desire to see the day of His coming and to live our lives in that light. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.