April 14, 2024

The Beginning of Birth Pains

Speaker: Bret Rogers Series: The Gospel According to Matthew Topic: Perseverance of the Saints Passage: Matthew 24:1–14

Last Monday, the sun and moon put on a show here. For many, the eclipse was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Ten years ago, though, these same celestial lights put on another show. In 2014, we witnessed a series of lunar eclipses that made the moon look red. A teacher named John Hagee didn’t waste any time. These marked the end times, he said, and then published a book called Blood Moon, which soon became a bestseller. Now, many of us know Mr. Hagee is a false teacher. But the book sales are telling: people get frantic about the end times.

But it’s not just Christian circles. Even the secular world can get absorbed in how it will all go down. My senior year of high school, tech geniuses anticipated a glitch in computer systems when the year reached 2000; and from that spawned the Y2K scare. Others will garner data from climate change and build a narrative predicting the “global collapse of human civilization.” Or consider how many movies shape their plot around a post-apocalyptic world, whether from natural disaster or nuclear war.

People get frantic talking about the end times. The unknowns, the lack of control, the potential disaster, leads many into panic and sometimes makes them vulnerable to teachers who pretend to have all the answers. Same was true in Jesus’ day. His disciples would soon experience a series of events that would make it seem like the world was ending. But Jesus has words about that end, which also prepare and steady our own worried souls. From our passage, we learn this: when the end is not yet, give yourself to levelheaded endurance and faithful proclamation. Let’s read from verse 1…

1 Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. 2 But 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.” 3 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?” 4 And Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray. 5 For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. 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. 7 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are but the beginning of the birth pains. 9 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. 10 And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. 11 And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. 12 And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. 13 But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 14 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.

Matthew 24 begins Jesus’ final discourse on the kingdom of heaven. The first discourse was the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus explains the fulfillment of the kingdom. The second was chapter 10—expect opposition for preaching the kingdom. Third was chapter 13—Jesus spoke parables on the nature of the kingdom. Chapter 18 was about community within the kingdom. Now we get the future of Jesus’ kingdom. How will it come, and how should we live until Jesus returns?

But this chapter also has its challenges. Across the centuries, Christians have differed, not so much on the what but on the when (which sometimes affects the what). But when do Jesus’ words transpire? What days is Jesus talking about?

Some will argue that the events Jesus describes are primarily future—not just future to the disciples but future to us. They push the events of Matthew 24 to a great tribulation at the very end of time. However, there are problems with that, the main one being that Jesus is answering the disciples’ question about the destruction of the temple, the temple they’re looking at. Also, when you set Matthew 24 alongside Luke 21, the connection to that historical temple in Jerusalem becomes clearer.

Others will argue that the events Jesus describes are primarily past—future to Jesus’ disciples but past to us. Aside from a few comments that Jesus makes to distance these events from his final return, this view sees verses 4-35 describing events that surround the Fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. This view has a lot going for it, especially as Jesus stresses repeatedly how the events he’s describing are not the end. Much has to do with what the disciples will experience in their lifetime.

The difficulty I have is how this view requires saying that events like verse 14 were complete by AD 70. “This gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” I don’t see how that was finished by AD 70. Also, it seems that this view leaves no room for aspects that are common to biblical prophecy, like viewing the end-time as a collage of events without specifying how far apart their fulfillment might be, or like whether some of these events might anticipate even greater ones like them in the future.

So, instead of pushing Matthew 24 to the distant future or the distant past, perhaps it’s better to see Matthew 24 doing both. Reading Jesus’ discourse feels like navigating Isaiah or Ezekiel or Revelation, as they move back and forth between things near and far, things earthly and heavenly.

My general take is that verses 4-14 describe events that characterize the entire age between Jesus’ resurrection and return, but they have immediate relevance to the pending fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. I think we find something similar in Revelation 6, where Jesus breaks the seals and sets in motion a series of judgments. Those judgments represent the same tribulations that Jesus describes here (slide).

2024-04-14 sermon table

They include international conflict, bloodshed, famine, the persecution of Christians as the gospel advances. Those tribulations characterize the entire age between Jesus’ enthronement and his return—at least, that was my attempt when we studied Revelation 6.

Now, why say all that up front? Because I want you to know that other takes on Matthew 24 are out there. I’m still piecing things together myself; and knowing those other views will give you more discernment along the way as you read Matthew 24. Christians who disagree with you will often sharpen your thinking further—perhaps they’re seeing things that you’ve overlooked or that you’ve forced to fit into a mold shaped by tradition more than the text. I also hope it will encourage us to seek unity on what is clear in the text; and that is this: when the end is not yet, give yourself to levelheaded endurance and faithful proclamation.

Jesus Foretells Judgment on the Temple

To see this, let’s first grasp the setting: Jesus foretells judgment on the temple. For several chapters, Jesus has been at the temple. Jesus cleansed the temple. Jesus cursed the fig tree outside the temple. Jesus criticized the leaders over the temple. Jesus condemns the temple in 23:38, “See, your house is left to you desolate.” Then finally Jesus leaves the temple, here in verse 1, and heads to the Mount of Olives.

That’s not arbitrary but has symbolic roots in Ezekiel 11. God’s presence left the temple and settled on the mountain in the east. That was the Mount of Olives; and it was a sign of Jerusalem’s pending destruction. Same here, only we’re now seeing God’s presence in Jesus. As God the Son, Jesus leaves the temple for good. The temple is now desolate; it’s devoid of God’s blessing and presence in the Son.

But the disciples don’t get it. They’re still enthralled with the temple (Matt 24:1). In Mark’s account they say, “What wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings, Teacher!” That’s understandable. The temple was an ancient wonder. Josephus records how it lacked nothing that could astound either mind or eye. But more than that. the temple was God’s idea. As Jews, their religious identity was bound to the temple,

Nevertheless, Jesus says, “It’s going down.” “Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” Jesus foretells judgment on the temple; and that judgment was fulfilled nearly 40 years later. The Roman general Titus besieged Jerusalem. He starved the people. He massacred much of the population. The army toppled the temple to the ground. When you consider how important the temple was in Israel’s story, that’s no small event.

But why was it happening? Well, in 21:13, Jesus said the temple had become a den of robbers. The leaders made use of the temple, but for all the wrong reasons. They were going through the motions. But God was not pleased; nor was he present. And now, God left. Let that sink in. The point of your worship, your prayer times, your Bible reading, your feasts together, your daily obedience—knowing the pleasure and presence of God should be the goal of all of it. Never get to a place where you’re fine going through the motions, but without the presence of Jesus. Jesus will soon talk about enduring till the end. Endurance requires nearness to God. Don’t get like the religious leaders, doing the rituals without a relationship. That’s one reason the temple fell.

But also, in 12:6, Jesus said that something greater than the temple is here. The temple was going down also because it wasn’t needed any more. Yes, it was God’s idea; but his temple was always pointing to better day. Jesus was replacing the priesthood with a better priesthood—his own priesthood in heaven. Jesus was replacing the sacrifices with the ultimate sacrifice—his own blood spilled at the cross. Jesus was replacing the temple-as-place with the temple-as-person—his own body raised from the dead. By prophesying the temple’s downfall, Jesus shows how the old order is on its way out; the new order is on its way in. Anyone and everyone (including all of us today)—if you want to meet with God, you must come through faith in Jesus Christ. Access to God only comes through Jesus—his person, his blood, his forgiveness.

The disciples don’t yet grasp the full significance of Jesus’ words about the temple’s downfall. But if such a day was coming, they wanted to know when. In verse 3 they say, “Tell us, when will these things be?” “These things” looks back to Jesus’ words about the temple’s destruction in verse 2. But they also ask a second question: “and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” “Jesus’ coming” (or return) and “the end of the age”—those are one thing. 13:48 already prepped us for this when it connected “the end of the age” to Jesus’ judgment. So, the disciples want to know, “When’s that happening?” But also note how the questions are asked together. Surely the temple’s destruction and Jesus’ return go together, right? It’s as if they can’t imagine a world in which those two things wouldn’t go together.

Jesus Prepares the Disciples for Tribulation

But Jesus knows how things will play out differently. There will be a delay between the temple’s destruction and Jesus’ return; and that delay will be filled with tribulation. That brings us to a second observation: Jesus prepares the disciples for tribulation. For starters, tribulation will include false saviors, those pretending to be the messiah. Verses 4-5, “See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray.”

This was already starting to happen in the first century. Acts 5:36-37 mentions two examples. A guy named Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men joined him. Later, it was a guy named Judas the Galilean. He too rose up and “drew away some of the people.” Much later it would be Simon bar Kokhba, Ann Lee, Sun Moon, David Koresh—the list could go on of false messiah figures.

Many will be especially vulnerable if they’re scared of the end, and they’re drawn to leaders saying, “Come, I will make you safe! I have all the answers. I know the exact timing of the end.” Jesus says, keep a level head and don’t be led astray by these pretenders—there’s more that must happen first.

Tribulation will also include international conflict. Verse 6, “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…”; and I take “the end” to be answering the disciples’ question about “the end of the age.” So, when you hear of war and rumors of wars, don’t freak out like the world is ending. “For,” he goes on to say, “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.” This must take place, verse 6 says. That’s called a divine must.

God planned it to happen this way. We saw the same thing in Revelation 6. Jesus tears open the seals. From our earthly perspective it feels like the evil rulers are in control; and that often leads to anxiety and despair. But the point here and in Revelation 6 is that Jesus is in control. So, don’t be alarmed. Keep a level head about yourselves. There’s a plan in place and Jesus is on the throne.

He also mentions natural disasters in tribulation. Verse 7, “and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places.” Again, the book of Acts mentions a great famine that came over all the world in the days of Claudius—this would’ve been around year 45 AD (Acts 11:28). They’re present in our day. Think too of how earthquakes can throw people into confusion and panic. But the point is that natural disasters, while they may function as warnings of greater judgment to come, the disciples shouldn’t take every one of them to mean the end has arrived. No, they must keep a level head and not be alarmed. Verse 8 says, “these are but the beginning of the birth pains.”

In tribulation there will also be widespread persecution. Verse 9, “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.” When you look at passages where Jesus speaks of living “for his name’s sake,” it means you acknowledge Jesus’ authority, you publicly identify with Jesus in word, and you represent Jesus through obedience. Nations don’t like that.

Persecution is a given in tribulation. We live in an affluent context, where being comfortable is the norm. We also live in a country whose founding principles recognize the dignity of man, and that contributes to relatively peaceful communities. But we can get so accustomed to this more comfortable setting that we act surprised when anything disturbs it. It catches us off-guard. But persecution shouldn’t surprise us; it’s the norm for Christians. 1 Peter 4:12, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings…” If this is the way the nations treated Jesus at the cross, how much more would they persecute those who follow Jesus.

One more aspect to tribulation: widespread apostasy. Listen to verse 10 again: “Then many will fall away [i.e., fall away from the faith] and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.”

So, not only will the church experience attack from outside; the church will experience attack from inside. As Paul would put it later on to the Ephesian elders—he says, “from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.” It’s terrible to watch people walk away from Jesus. I’ve known men, once serving so faithfully it seemed; and then years later I’ve also watched them leave Jesus and leave their marriage and leave everything for the world.

How should we think about that? Jesus isn’t saying that those who are truly born again will ultimately fall away. No, we have every assurance that they will endure to the end and be saved. Notice how verses 13 and 14 fit together. Jesus promises that the gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world. How does that happen? Through his disciples. Those who truly belong to Jesus—he will keep them preaching and enduring “for as long as it takes;” and these disciples will be saved. They will prove by their endurance that they truly belonged to Jesus.

But the New Testament also speaks of those who appear to be Christians. Some vainly deceive themselves, presuming to have God’s favor when, in fact, they don’t. They are like the second soil of Jesus’ parable in 13:20. He “hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.” Some pretend to be with Jesus, but tribulation exposes that their true love isn’t with Jesus; it’s with the world. In this way, tribulation can have a purifying effect on the church, sifting out those who aren’t real and leaving those who are.

False saviors, international conflict, natural disasters, persecution, apostasy—those are massive obstacles to overcome in tribulation. Many days, they’re coming at you all at once, taking their physical and emotional and spiritual toll. But Jesus says, “Don’t be alarmed.” “Don’t be led astray.” Keep a level head. Jesus is loving his disciples by preparing them for hard days. Isn’t this how we prepare our kids: “Alright, son. These are the obstacles you’re about to face when you learn the internet or when you move to college or when you face conflict at work. Here’s what to do. Here’s how you remain steady.” Isn’t this how a coach prepares his team for the hardest game of the season, or how a commander prepares his soldiers for the worst combat.

Jesus’ words prepare us to face the worst of tribulation. You need to know this, so you don’t quit at the first whiff of hardships. You need to know this, so you won’t be surprised and think something is wrong, or think God’s not in control, or that the gospel isn’t working. You need to know this, so we can teach other people to count the cost. Christianity doesn’t mean escape from hardships; it means death in the path of love.

But you know what else is beautiful about this passage. Jesus says these things on the way to the cross. He doesn’t just prepare his disciples for hardships; he walks through them himself. Jesus will soon face the greatest tribulation. He will be at the center of nations raging against him. He will suffer persecution from them. He will witness apostasy as Judas betrays him. He will die beneath God’s wrath, the weight of which will cause the earth to quake. He endures to the end for your salvation.

In other words, if the Father sustains Jesus through a tribulation as awful as the cross, he will sustain you when who take up your cross as well. Or, to use the words of Hebrews 12:3, “Consider [Jesus] who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.” When the end is not yet, Jesus calls us to levelheaded endurance. Tribulation isn’t easy, but he gives us what we need.

Jesus Instills Confidence in the Gospel’s Advance

But that’s not all Jesus says. In verse 14, Jesus also instills confidence in the gospel’s advance. Verse 14, “this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”

Earlier I mentioned how some believe these events already happened. They take “the whole world” at the known inhabited world of that day, limited to that region. Also, for them, “the end” refers to the end of the temple, the end of the old age. But I still think Jesus has the disciples’ question in mind about the “end of the age,” the same end of the age marked by Jesus’ coming. It’s the same “end of the age” that Jesus refers to in Matthew 28, when Jesus commissions his disciples to makes disciples of all nations, and he promises, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

So, the way I see it, Jesus provides not only his initial disciples with rock solid assurance, but all disciples with rock solid assurance until he returns. The point is that Jesus has a mission that includes more than just Israel; it includes saving a people from all nations and that mission will not fail. False saviors, international conflict, natural disasters, persecution, apostasy—none of it will stop the gospel’s advance to all nations. All nations will hear the testimony of what God has done in Jesus Christ. Jesus’ mission is not a “Well, we’ll see” type of mission. It’s not a “Let’s see what the church makes of this one” type of mission. The advance of the gospel is certain.

If that’s true, what should we be giving our lives to when the end is not yet? Faithful proclamation. It’s not a mission that will fail. All kinds of tribulation will make you want to give up sometimes. I know because I’ve been there. There are hardships about this life that will tempt you to throw in the towel. You ache about the evil in this world; or when you lead someone to Jesus and then watch them walk away, you can start doubting, “Why am I even doing this? Is the gospel going to win?”

But what keeps you going and preaching and serving is the certainty of Jesus’ promise. Regardless of how the darkness taunts us, none of your sacrificial love, none of your prayers, none of your evangelism efforts, none of your diligence at work, none of your missions support is in vain. Why? Because Jesus’ mission is certain. Jesus is faithful to his word. Jesus has all power to achieve what he promised.

So, when you experience tribulation and you’re tempted to panic, when things get bad and all kinds of folks are frantic about the end, don’t be alarmed. Keep a level head and give yourself to faithful proclamation. When you sometimes see little fruit from your evangelism efforts, when you get discouraged because friends show no interest in the gospel, what is your hope to keep preaching? This promise right here: all nations will hear and then Jesus will return.

Leon Morris puts it this way: “Jesus has foretold grievous troubles for his followers in the days ahead. But he does not let them forget the certainty of final triumph.” So, when the end is not yet, give yourself to bringing the good news to your neighbors and the nations. You are part of what Jesus said will happen. Those of you who are Christians—you are evidence that Jesus’ words are coming to pass. His testimony is going out. The world is hearing. The gospel is bearing fruit; its advance will not fail.

Consider your part in that advance. What contribution are you making to faithful proclamation? How are you using your gifts or skills to build up the church in its mission to the world? Who are the lost people in your life? And how might you build inroads to share with them about Jesus? Are there people in your neighborhoods that you can invite over for dinner? Are you praying for the nations to hear? In what ways might you be used to encourage missionaries? Nathaniel and Marena are going overseas this summer. What part can you play in supporting them in prayer and encouragement?

You might approach Matthew 24 differently than I did today. But I think we can all agree on this: when the end is not yet, disciples give themselves to levelheaded endurance and faithful proclamation. The days that we’re given before the end—they are for telling people about Jesus. They’re for helping all nations hear the good news of what Jesus has accomplished. “This gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”

other sermons in this series