When the End Begins

A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on September 27, 2020.

Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. 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.” 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?” And Jesus answered them, “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. 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. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains. 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. And then many will fall away 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. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 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 24:1-14).

Hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, famine, pandemics, warfare, death. The year 2020? No, I was actually describing the consistent catastrophic events of the last 2,000 years. It’s funny how often we see life through the lens of the present. It’s not so funny how rarely we consider history.

Here is what history teaches us: Every generation has natural disasters and political upheaval. Every generation also tends to think that their experiences are worse or more significant than the past. It seems to be human nature to believe that the most significant time in history is yours. Of course, this perspective is elevated when attached to end-times diagnoses. Hurricanes and wildfires are no longer merely natural disasters but indicators of the last days. Political upheaval and warfare are not just evidence of the fallen human condition but accelerating evidence of the end of the age.

In a sense, such doomsayers are right. Catastrophic events are evidence that we live in the last days. Where they miss the mark is to assume that such evidence is revealed only in their lifetime.

Indeed, we are living in the last days, which began at Christ’s ascension and will continue until his return. We, like the apostles before us, are living in the end times, and we will continue to see evidence of it until Christ returns, whether it be today or 500 billion years from now.

This is not to say that we are left without prophetic guidance. As Jesus revealed to his apostles the signs of the end, so they have carried them to us in Scripture. For example, we know specifically when the end begins and how to live as Christ’s disciples until the end of the age.

We are not left without the revealed will of God, yet we often put more emphasis on deciphering the end than how to live in it.

Consider our passage today. As Jesus and his disciples left the temple mound, the disciples marveled at the grandiosity of the temple buildings. The temple mound was the monumental emblem of national Israel. But Jesus responds to their veneration solemnly, “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.”

Jesus’ prophecy must have been sobering. Perhaps they walked in silence across the Kidron Valley and up the slopes of the Mount of Olives. But as they sat on the hillside, likely enjoying a panoramic view of the temple below, the disciples want to know more about the temple’s destruction, finally asking, “when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”

Looking at the formidable temple structures and then considering that not one stone will be left upon another, the disciples want to know what we would want to know: When? But considering their perspective of Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of David, they assume that the temple’s destruction is tied to immediate royal ascension. Let us remember that the celebration of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem did not presume a crucifixion or a resurrection but an enthronement.

So, they not only want to know when but what: “What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” When we hear the word “coming,” we think of our Lord Jesus’ second advent. And when we hear “end of the age,” we think of the conclusion of life as we know it. But remember that these are truths that the disciples cannot yet comprehend. They presume that the temple’s destruction and King Jesus’ enthronement are simultaneous events. Their questions of when and what are one and the same.

But Jesus will not answer their questions according to their preconceived ideas. Instead, he will weave pastoral counsel with the temple’s destruction with his second coming. Jesus’ response, often referred to as the Olivet Discourse is lengthy and sometimes complex but let us not overlook Jesus’ care for his disciples then and today.

Do not be led astray.

Preconceived ideas can lead to wrong conclusions. Jesus’ disciples are certainly vulnerable, and in the moment they can’t fathom what will unfold in the coming weeks. So, Jesus warns them that deceivers will come claiming the end is near. They will come with seeming authority, carrying a sense of prophetic fulfillment and exalting themselves rather than Christ.

There will be true wars and fake reports about other wars, and the truth will be difficult to discern. Jesus’ disciples will be tempted to hear of and even witness conflicts and lose hope. Peace will be in short supply as international hostility accelerates, while as if on cue natural disasters will lead some to believe they are on the late, great planet earth. But Jesus says, “See that no one leads you astray…All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.”

Jesus’ caution is no less significant for his disciples today. Sadly, modern Christians are typically (and rightly) considered more gullible than discerning. Less rooted in Scripture and theologically illiterate, many modern Christians not only disregard Jesus’ warning, they don’t even know it exists.

We are no less vulnerable than Jesus’ disciples to be led astray by deceivers, and likely more. Let us heed the apostle’s counsel:

in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people (2 Tim. 3:1-5).

We know neither the day nor the hour of our Lord’s return, but we know with certainty until then there will be those who desire to deceive us.

The method of their deception may very well be current events. They may point to the political chaos around the world. They may point to senseless conflicts and increasing riots. They may draw attention to natural disasters even predicting the demise of our species. They will claim that we have reached the end of the age, or close to it, encouraging fear over faith, angst over trust.

The intent of the deceivers is to take our eyes off Christ and his kingdom and to obsess over everything else. How can you be concerned with the condition of your neighbor’s soul with the world seemingly falling apart around you. Christian, wake up! You are hearing of wars and rumors of wars, national and international conflicts, famines and earthquakes, pandemics and elections, and you are disobeying Christ in your worry and angst. You are obsessing over the temporal while ignoring the eternal. Did not Jesus say, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matt. 6:33)? Rather than letting our hearts and minds be captivated by the cares and concerns of this worldly kingdom, let us treasure the gospel of the kingdom of heaven.

Do not fall away.

Remember that Jesus’ disciples asked a two-part question: When? and What will be the sign? In response, they first got a warning and then this promise: “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.” I wonder if they were sorry they asked.

Actually, Jesus has already told his disciples, “Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues” (Matt. 10:17). But this is more than a reminder. It is an elaboration pointing to a greater expectation. They are guaranteed trouble, even death, and hatred on an international scale. The disciples are to view such trials not as the end of the world but a beginning of the harvest.

Not everyone who claims to be a disciple, will have such a gospel-centered perspective. Jesus says that when trials come, the disciples should not be surprised to see some falling away, others betraying them, and others hating those whom they once called brother. False prophets will capitalize on those whose faith is fake, and others will become disenchanted with following Christ, since things seem to get worse rather than better for those who are disciples. Jesus promises to his disciples such a refining fire that only those sustained by God’s sovereign grace will persevere.

Indeed, Jesus’ disciples did face tribulation and all, but John died a martyrs’ death. Yet, as the trials increased so did the advancement of the gospel. As church father Tertullian put it, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” (Blomberg, 357). God indeed works in mysterious ways but always for the revelation of his grace and glory.

Therefore, do not be discouraged: God is at work through the trials of this life. For this reason we are to consider such trials with joy, knowing that God uses them for our good and his glory (James 1:2-4). Even those things which some may consider disastrous, we see through the lens of our sanctification, as we are conformed to the image of Christ.

Sadly, there have been, are, and will be “many” in the church who do not have this perspective. Some will turn away from the church and seek to undermine our work. Others, who once considered us family, will hate us with a passion. Others will hear the call and believe a false gospel preached by those who “pervert the grace of God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (Jude 1:4). Some will look around at the chaos of the world and consider Christianity either a sham or ineffective. Others will just grow cold, fading away, revealing their unbelief.

Jesus does not reveal these truths to his disciples then or today to discourage us. Quite the opposite: God’s grace is revealed in our perseverance. When everything in the world seems to be falling apart and yet we have peace, God gets the glory. When it seems as if the world grows ever darker and yet we have joy, God gets the glory. When it seems like the people around us are at their most divisive and yet we have love for one another in the church, God gets the glory. In these last days, do not be led astray, nor fall away, but let us go away unto the nations with Good News: There is hope for sinners like you and me, for we are saved by God’s grace alone through faith in Christ alone to the glory of God alone.

Let us go away.

Jesus reveals to his disciples that there is God-glorifying purpose in their tribulation, in their death, in the hatred they will encounter: “this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” And so it is.

After Christ’s ascension, the Day of Pentecost revealed a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural outpouring of the Holy Spirit’s ministry. The gospel was carried from Jerusalem into the known world at that time. Yes, there were anti-Christs, wars and rumors of wars, political and military conflicts, even natural disasters, and yet the gospel advanced one soul at a time. Yes, the disciples encountered the worst of times and the worst of people, many around them fell away or were led astray, but despite it all the gospel advanced one soul at a time.

So also today. Despite the most difficult circumstances, the gospel is advancing to every tribe, tongue, and nation. So, let us take back our hearts and minds from the distractions and disappointments of this fallen world and let us go away into the nations with the good news of Jesus Christ. Whether it be through praying, giving, or going, you and I are called to be Great Commission disciples.

Brothers and sisters, stop living in fear and start praying for souls. Stop consuming all that bad news and start sharing the Good News. Stop critiquing your neighbors’ politics and start telling them about Christ’s kingdom. Because, we have not yet reached the end, so look and “see that the fields are white for harvest” (John 4:35).

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