Sermon MessagesSuch Were Some of You
"Life Between Advents"
(Delivered Sunday, September 28, 2008 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
We come this morning to a new section in the Gospel of Matthew.
It begins with Jesus leaving the temple in Jerusalem for the last time. As far as Scriptures tell us, He did not enter it again after this point during His time on earth. And before He left the temple, He uttered those sad words that we find at the end of chapter 23;
It would be hard for us to imagine the grief that must have been in our Lord's heart when He spoke those words. He was the long-awaited King of the Jews; but when He had presented Himself to them, they rejected Him. And now, He was departing from them. They would not see Him again—not until the day comes when they will receive Him as their King at His second coming.
And what we see in this new section—found in chapters 24 and 25—needs to be understood in the light of that grievous, final departure from the temple. It describes, in part, what He meant when He said, “Your house is left to you desolate . . .”
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It's safe to say that the disciples didn't fully comprehend the sadness of our Lord's final departure from the temple. It seems that they were too busy admiring the temple itself.
The temple that Jesus departed from, and that the disciples were then admiring, was the temple that had been built by King Herod the Great. Historians tell us that it was a marvelous sight to behold. Its surface was polished white; and its trims were pure gold. It was said that when the sun shone upon it, it sparkled like a jewel high upon the hill. Luke, in his Gospel, tells us that Herod's temple was "adorned with beautiful stones and donations" (Luke 21:5). The ancient historian Josephus described the foundations of the temple as very large; saying that it was built on stones that were "white and strong", and that each of them was the roughly forty feet long, twenty feet wide, and twelve feet high (Ant. 15.11.3). Contemporary writers said that it was "a temple of immense wealth"; and one ancient writer even said that "He that never saw the temple of Herod, never saw a fine building".
The sight of this temple was understandably overwhelming to anyone who stood before it. And that explains the opening words of Matthew 24;
But it also helps us appreciate how shocked they must have been when Jesus then went on to say to them what He said:
In fact, the strongest negative in the Greek language is used—so that Jesus says that "in no way" will there be left a stone upon a stone that will not be cast down. And as it turned out a few years later—in 70 A.D.—the Roman general Titus marched into the city and so destroyed this temple that one eyewitness said that no one who had looked at the ruins would have imagined that anyone had been in it.
I can't help but think that the disciples were astonished out of their minds by this! They would have looked at the temple—with its exquisite beauty and immense stones—and wondered how in the world such a thing could possibly be! And so they ask Him about it.
And thus follows one of the most remarkable discourses our Lord ever spoke to His disciples. Theologians call it His "Olivet Discourse"—a discourse, spoken on the very place that Old Testament prophecy tells us our Lord Jesus will stand at His second coming (see Zechariah 14:4), and in which He shares privately with His disciples the events that would lead up to His return to this earth.
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The questions that the disciples asked are very important. They are basically two separate questions. And I suggest to you that both questions are key to understanding what our Lord teaches in the verses that follow.
The first question was inspired by the fact that our Lord said that the marvelous temple they were admiring would be destroyed. They said, "Tell us, when will these things be?" And so, He goes on to deal with that question in verses 4-14. Their second question (which may seem like two questions, but in reality is only one) was, "And what will be the sign of Your coming, and the end of the age?" He then answers that second question in verses 15-31. In the rest of chapter 24, in verses 32-51, Jesus gives His disciples some practical instructions regarding the things He just told them; and in chapter twenty-five, He further instills these instructions into their minds by means of three parables about His second coming kingdom at the end of this age.
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Now; this is a passage that needs to be handled with special care. There have been a wide variety of ways it has been understood—and sometimes, the results have been very confusing. And I'm very concerned this morning that I don't add further to the confusion! But I believe that we can avoid a lot of confusion if we keep a few interpretive principles in mind.
First, I believe we will avoid a lot of difficulties if we keep a broad view of what our Lord is talking about in these two chapters. Some, for example, have suggested that He is speaking strictly of events that would happen in 70 A.D.; that is, of the time immediately in the future when both the city and its temple would be destroyed by the Romans. Other people suggest that He is speaking strictly of events in the far-distant future; that is, of a time when the dispursed Jewish people are back in their land, and when their temple is rebuilt, and when our Lord Jesus returns to this earth. With respect to those who hold the one or the other of these strict views, I don't believe either of them by themselves deals adequately with what Jesus says.
I believe the best way to understand our Lord's words in these two chapters is to see Him as addressing both the immediate situation of the destruction of the city and the temple, and the distant future events surrounding His return—with the immediate situation sometimes serving as an "illustration" of a future event. Sometimes, it seems as if He is speaking of those two events as if they were one event in time. There's a name for this view. Theologians have sometimes referred to it as the "prophetic foreshortening" view1. It involves a phenomenon of biblical prophecy we often find in the writings of the Old Testament prophets.
You can think of "prophetic foreshortening" this way. Think of what it would be like to look at a series of mountain peaks along a mountain range; but viewing the mountain range from only one end. Each of the mountain peaks would be separated by many miles; but from your perspective—a 'foreshortened' perspective—you wouldn't be able to see the great space that existed between them. The different mountain peaks would look to you like one mountain with several peaks. Similarly in "prophetic foreshortening", great spaces of time may exists between some of the events being described; but they are being presented together in such a way that, from our perspective, it's as if they were occurring within the same short time frame. If we keep that in mind, we will see how what Jesus says can apply both to events that were immediately about to occur and to events that would occur in the far distant future.
Secondly, I believe we need to remember that, while our Lord was speaking about future events that would involve His followers from both Jewish and Gentile backgrounds, He was saying these things primarily to Jewish men. And so, many of the things He had to say would have application to His followers throughout the centuries—both Jewish and Gentile; but they are put to us in first-century-Jewish terms. We need to be careful of thinking that, just because some of Jesus' statements are put in a Jewish frame of speaking, they would have application only to His Jewish followers. In reality, they have a application to all His followers throughout the unfolding centuries.
And thirdly—and perhaps most importantly—we need to remember that our Lord didn't speak these words just to satisfy our curiosity about the future. If we focus merely on creating a "time-table" or "end-times diagram" that contains all the details and elements as an end in and of itself, we may miss the fact that this section contains instructions that are meant to be put into action in our daily lives.
I believe that what our Lord says in this section is mainly intended to be practical. He isn't just giving His disciples a bunch of details about end-times events. Rather, He's telling His followers the basic things that they will need know about His return, in order to help them live as faithfully and fruitfully in the light of those realities. So; we will avoid misusing this section of Scripture if we keep its practical focus in the forefront.
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Now; having stated those basic things, let's look at Jesus' answer to the first question. He had just departed from the temple; and had said that not one stone of it would be left standing on another that would not be cast down. The disciples then came to Him privately and asked about it. "Tell us" they said, "when will these things be?"
Their question was about timing. “When . . .?” And in verses 4-8, He deals with that specific question:
Now; I don't know if you noticed or not, but Jesus didn't answer the question in the way His disciples expected. They asked Him when these things will happen; and He definitely answered their question. But He answered by telling them, primarily, when it wouldn't happen.
He tells them about some things that would happen, and tells them, things like "all these things must come to pass”; but He adds, "but the end is not yet". Or when He describes other things that will happen, He adds, "All these things are the beginning of sorrows"—or, literally "the beginning of birth-pangs". He tells them that “he who endures to the end shall be saved”; suggesting that the end had not yet been described. The only indication He gives of when the end would be is in verse 14; where He says, "And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come."
An do you know what this tells us? It tells us that how we live during this undefined amount time between our Lord's first coming and His second coming is more important to Him than our knowing the details of when the end of the age will be.
And tucked in the midst of all these things that he says, I hope you also noticed that there are some specific things He tells us to do. I believe that, when it comes to His end-times teaching, those things are the things He wants us to focus on most of all.
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So; what are those things? First, notice that He tells us to . . .
1. TAKE HEED NOT TO BE DECEIVED (v. 4-8).
He says, “Take heed that no one deceives you" (v. 4). The word "deceived" can also mean "led astray"; and I believe that's the best way to understand it in this context. And what it is it that we need to be on guard against—so that we're not led astray—is the pressure that would lead us to misinterpret the times, and make us think that the time of the end had come.
Jesus mentions two ways this could happen. First, He warns us that many would come saying "I am the Christ" (v. 5). He warns that many people would be led astray in this manner. And indeed, many have. Throughout the centuries, there have been people who have risen up and said that they were the Christ—either meaning that they were the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, or that they were the "revisitation of the Christ" in some way—and have thus announced the end of the old age, and the beginning of a new age. Jesus warns us not to be fooled by such things.
And second, He warns us that many world events would occur that may cause us to think that the end-times had come. They would hear of wars and rumors of wars; and the reports of these things would trouble people greatly. I remember when the tragedy of 9/11 occurred. Many people were asking, "Is this the end of the world?" And even today, people look at the events on the news and ask the same question. And yet, as Jesus tells us, "all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet" (v. 6).
He tells us that it will even involve more than just rumors. "For nation will rise against nation," He tells us, "and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places." I have gotten used to getting up, making my morning cup of coffee, turning on our little kitchen television to the news, and bracing myself for what they might be reporting. So often, it's a new disaster, a new flood, a new earthquake, a new war. And yet, Jesus warns us not to be led astray by these things. "All these", as horrible as they may appear, are (as the original text has it, only “the beginning of birth-pangs".
When I think of this word of instruction from our Lord, I think of the Thessalonian believers. Paul wrote two letters to them; and in them, he makes it clear that they were very faithful people. But two things were of great concern to him. First, he was concerned because someone was writing letters to them—pretending to have sent them from Paul—to the effect that "the day of Christ had come" (2 Thessalonians 2:2); and these fake letters were causing them to be "shaken of mind" and "troubled". Second, he was concerned because, apparently, some were responding to this false report by "checking-out" of daily life. They were walking in a "disorderly manner, not working at all, but are busybodies" (3:11). Paul wrote in order to, among other things, correct this error. He assured them that the day of Christ had, in fact, not yet come; and that those who were checking-out of life because they thought the end had come should check back in! This is problem that keeps coming up in the church. We are far too easily thrown off track by the mistaken assumption that the end of the age has come. And when that happens, we lose our focus and neglect our duties.
Later on in this section of Matthew;'s Gospel, our Lord tells us what the signs are that we should be looking for. But it isn't any of these things. Don't be troubled by those who mistakenly declare that the end has come. Don't be led astray, through fear or panic, from living the life you should in Christ.
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Another thing our Lord tells us to do is . . .
2. ENDURE IN THE FAITH TO THE END (vv. 9-13).
He says that at the turbulent times that are only the "beginning of sorrows"—but that are not yet the end—"Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name's sake" (v. 9). This is not speaking of 'the great tribulation'; because that isn't mentioned until verse 21-22. Rather, this is speaking of the reality that our Lord had already told His disciples about in Matthew 10:16-22;
It's what our Lord had talked about in John 15:18-19;
Not only will there be 'direct' pressures from the world against us as Jesus' followers, but He also warns that there will be 'indirect' pressures. The times will be tough; and they will test the integrity of those who say they belong to Christ. He says that many will be "offended" or "caused to stumble" at the faith (v. 10a). In some of history's most trying times for the church, those who profess to be His followers would betray others who profess to be His followers; and will hate one another (v. 10b). Many would be misled by those who rise up as false prophets—not in the sense we spoke of before, where they might be misled into thinking that the end-times had come; but rather, in the sense of being perverted completely from the faith (v. 11). There will be times when an overwhelming 'lawlessness' will prevail in society as a whole; and many of those who claim to be Jesus' followers will become affected by it and will grow "cold" in their love (v. 12).
This is not just the characteristics of the end-times alone. I believe that Jesus is telling us that they will be characteristics of many of those times in history that will simply be the "beginning of the birth-pangs" of the end times. He tells us well in advance that such times will come. And yet, He spurs us on in those times by reminding us that such times are "tests" for His people. He tells us, "But he who endures to the end shall be saved" (v. 13). He who stays true to Him in such times will prove that they truly belong to Him.
I think here of what Paul wrote to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3. He said,
By contrast, he urges Timothy to pass the test of the times:
The end-times will come; but they haven't come yet. And our focus shouldn't be on when the end-times come, but rather on our own faithfulness in the times in which the Lord has placed us. And in all such times, our Lord tells us, "he who endures to the end shall be saved".
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So; when it comes to our life on this earth in view of the coming end-times—when it comes to how we are to live between our Lord's first advent and His second—He has given us some specific instructions. Our obedience to those instructions should be our main focus.
First, He warns us to be sure that we are not deceived by the pressures to believe that the end-times have come before they really have. And second, we're to be sure that we endure in the faith to the very end, no matter what the pressures of the times may be.
Those two commands are, you might say, defensive in nature. And now, He give us one more—and this is an action that falls into the category of “offense”. He says we are to ...
3. KEEP SPREADING THE GOSPEL OF THE KINGDOM (v. 14).
What a marvelous promise He gives us. He says, "And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations" (v. 14a). I take that to be a promise on the part of our sovereign God. No matter what the times are like—throughout the period of our time of awaiting our Lord's return—His gospel goes forth and saves lost women and men. Even in the places in which the governments of men forbid the gospel from entering, the Lord Jesus says that it will be preached as a witness to all nations—even theirs!
But this isn't a promise only. It's also a call. It's a reflection of our Lord's great commission; in which He said,
When we live in the midst of dark times—when we live in times that are the "beginning of birth-pangs"—the most important work we can be doing is the work of spreading the gospel. The end-times are not here yet; but they're fast approaching. Our Lord's return is nearer today than it was the day before. And it's more important than ever that we proclaim the Savior to lost men and women. This was what the apostle Paul was urging on Timothy when he wrote to him and said;
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So, dear brothers and sisters in Christ; we begin to study one of the most fascinating subjects we could ever study—our Lord's own teaching about His second coming and the events that surround the end of the age.
But let's make sure we have the right priorities in such a study. Let's not get so wrapped up in the details of this passage that we fail to put into practice the very clear and very specific instructions He gave to us.
Let's make sure that we are alert to the times—and that we are not fooled into thinking the end has come when it hasn't yet arrived, and thus lose sight of our duties. Let's make sure we endure in the faith to the very end—no matter what the times may be; and that we thus remain useful to Him in the work of His kingdom. And above all else, let's make sure we are proclaiming the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ wherever—and whenever—He has chosen for us to live; because it is that gospel alone that saves lost souls for eternity.
1See Anthony A. Hoekema, The Bible and The Future (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979), p. 148-9.
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