"In the Best of Hands at the Worst of Times"
(Delivered Sunday, October 5, 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've been studying from the section of Matthew's Gospel that contains our Lord's 'Olivet Discourse'. In it, He tells us about the events that surround His second coming, and the end of the age.
And this morning, we come to His description of the events that will occur on earth just prior to His return. It's that unprecedented period of trouble that is mentioned in several places in the Old Testament. Isaiah 26:21 calls it "the indignation". Jeremiah 30:7 calls it "the time of Jacob's trouble". Joel 2:1 refers to it by the broad name "the day of the LORD". Daniel 12:1 calls it "a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation, even to that time".
And the name that Christians today are accustomed to calling it comes from our Lord's words in this morning's passage: "the great tribulation". In Matthew 24:15-28, He speaks to His disciples and says;
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Our Lord's words constitute His answer to a question that was put to Him by His disciples.
They had just left the temple together for the very last time—after He had spoken sad words of lamentation over Jerusalem for its rejection of Him (23:37-39). As they left, and as the disciples commented on the marvelous buildings of the temple, Jesus spoke those shocking words to them that we find at the beginning of chapter 24: “Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down" (v. 2).
His disciples were stunned; and when they got alone with Him, they asked about it. They remembered that He had already told them that He would—one day—return to the earth "in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works" (Matthew 16:27-28). They rightly understood that the destruction He had just described to them was a part of the events that would surround the time of His second coming. And they asked; “Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?”
And so, in verses 4-14, He tells them about the characteristics of the times that would precede His return—the times He called (literally) "the beginning of birthpains" (v. 8). And in verses 29-31, He very specifically describes His glorious return;
But you may notice that He says that His return comes "immediately after the tribulation of those days" (v. 29). He speaks of something specific. He uses a definite article—"the tribulation of those days". Our passage this morning describes that unprecedented time of tribulation that will precede His glorious return.
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Now; it seems to me that the thing that makes "the great tribulation" stand out isn't so much the uniqueness of the things that happen in it. As I have studied this chapter, it appears to me that much of what will happen in that unprecidented time will be things that also characterize the times we call "the beginning of birthpains". What seems to be unique about "the great tribulation" will be that those things will become greatly expanded—so that they spread from Jersualem to the whole world; and they become greatly intensified—so that, unless those days were mercifully shortened by God, no flesh on earth would survive.
And it's in this that I see a spiritual lesson for our everyday lives as believers. As our Lord gives a description of that future, unprecedented time of trouble on the earth, He also—at the same time—gives us hints of His sovereign rule over it. He tells His disciples when it will begin. He tells them what will happen in it. He tells them how long it will last. He tells them what to beware of during those times. And He tells them what the outcome of it all will be.
And if He demonstrates such sovereign control over even the most unprecedented outbreak of evil that this world will ever know, then you and I can be sure that He demonstrates sovereign rule over (if I may say it this way) all the far 'lessor' times of trouble that you and I—as His people—face in our daily lives right now.
As Paul affirmed in Romans 8:38-39, concerning times of trouble in his own day;
And if we keep the sovereignty of our wonderful Savior in view in this passage, we will become persuaded of the same thing as Paul!
There are many fascinating things that may capture our attention in this passage. But let's keep our focus on the One who is telling these things to us. And if we do so, we will learn to trust that, as Jesus' beloved people by faith, we are in the very best of hands—even in the very worst of times.
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Now; the disciples had wanted to know "when" these things would be. And now, He tells them when this "great tribulation" will begin. We first see that . . .
1. HE DECLARES THE SIGN THAT MARKS ITS BEGINNING (v. 15).
You might remember that the first general sign that our Lord gives concerning the end times is world missions. That's not something people usually look for.
Today you hear people looking at all the wars and rumors of wars; and at nations rising against nations, and kingdoms rising against kingdoms; and at famines and pestilences and earthquakes. People are looking in dread at these things, and at many other things besides. In fact, they're seeing these things more than ever--in part because they're made visible to so many people through the news and over the internet and in part because they truly are increasing in frequency and intensity. But Jesus warns us that we are not to be troubled when we see these things, because "the end is not yet". These things—even as frequent and intense as they may seem—do not themselves constitute the sign that the end has come.
If you want to look at an "indicator" of the times that is authorized to be an indicator by our Lord Himself, then look at the spread of the gospel around the world. He told us that "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" (v. 14).
Do you realize that that's one of the things that most outrages the enemy of our souls? The Book of Revelation tells us that the followers of Christ overcame the devil "by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony, and that they did not love their lives to the death" (Revelation 12:11). It tells us that he makes war with those "who keep the commandments of our God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ" (v. 17).
It will, in part, be this spread of the testimony of Jesus Christ around the world that will so enrage the devil that he will raise the greatest persecution of the saints in history (see Revelation 13:1ff). And so, the more we see the gospel of Jesus Christ being preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, the closer we can know we are to the end of the age.
By the way; do you remember what happened in March of 1995? Billy Graham preached the gospel message from a pulpit in Puerto Rico through a network of 30 satellites, that bounced that message back to receiving dishes in more than 165 separate nations! It's estimated that as many as one billion people heard one of his messages during that campaign—which was called, appropriately enough—"Global Mission".1 And that was thirteen years ago! How much more has the gospel spread since then?
It's hard not to think that we are living in the most remarkable time in history! But even greater than that, it's hard not to see the wonderful grace of our Lord—that He decrees that the sign of the world-wide spread of His gospel must happen before the end comes. How merciful He is! As the Bible tells us, He is "not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9).
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But that's when our Lord gives us another very specific sign in our passage this morning. He says, “Therefore when you see the ‘abomination of desolation,’ spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place . . ."
This is something that is referred to four times in the Old Testament book of Daniel (Daniel 8:13; 9:27; 11:31; 12:11). It describes a horrible event—that an ungodly ruler of world influence will make a covenant with the people of Israel, break it, and dare to set up a defiling image in the temple of God. And most Bible scholars recognize three fulfillments of it—the first two being largely symbolic of the third and final fulfillment of it.
The first occurred in 168 B.C.; when the Selucied king Antiochus Epiphanes (who deeply despised and resented the Jewish people) marched an army of Greeks and renegade Jews into Jerusalem and polluted the holy altar in the temple by offering up a sow on it, put an end to the daily sacrifices, ordered the Jews to cease the worship of God, and erected an image of Zeus in the temple2. This event was past in the time that the Lord spoke the words of our passage; and so, He clearly intended to apply them to something else.
The second fulfillment of it occurred in 70 A.D.; when the Roman general Titus invaded the city of Jerusalem, and destroyed it and its temple. This was an event that was just a short time in the future when the Lord spoke these words. He clearly intended that they be applied to that future event; because the very stones He said would not be found setting one upon another (v. 2) are the stones of the temple that Titus knocked down. The result of it is what Jesus said in Luke 21:24; that "Jerusalem would be trampled by Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled". But clearly, His words have an application even further beyond 70 A.D.; because they are intended to describe the sign of His coming and the end of the age (v. 3), and because, immediately after it, the Lord would return (vv. 29-31). I believe that's why He adds "whoever reads" (with reference to the book of Daniel), "let him understand".
The third and most complete fulfillment of the prophecy about the "abomination of desolation"—for which the first two only served as symbolic pictures—will be the coming of the Antichrist—the future, satanically empowered world ruler described in dreadful detail in Revelation 13 as "the beast" who deludes the whole world into worshiping himself—the "man of sin" that Paul described in 2 Thessalonians 2:3-12; whose coming is immediately associated with the Day of the Lord. Paul writes;
Now; I'm very tempted to go into further detail; and sadly, we just don't have the time to do so. But the thing that I want you to notice the most in all this is that our Lord declares the sign to us that marks the beginning of the end of this age. It is under His control. The dreadful "great tribulation" will not come until He says it will.
Likewise, our trials and troubles only come upon us when He says so.
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Note also that, with respect to "the great tribulation" . . .
2. HE DESCRIBES THE NATURE OF ITS SEVERITY BEFORE IT COMES (vv. 16-21).
He says that when "the abomination of desolation" is seen—when the Antichrist sets up the defiling image in the temple of God, and declares himself to be God—then the people of God are to flee. He says, “then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let him who is on the housetop not go down to take anything out of his house. And let him who is in the field not go back to get his clothes" (vv. 16-18). A man shouldn't bother to run to civilization or to the safety of the city, but rather should run for the hills of the wilderness. He shouldn't even bother to get his valuables out of his house in the hopes that they may sustain him, or even bother with basic comforts such as his coat. It would be better to shiver in the cold than to fail to get away. These instructions from the Lord describe the desperate urgency that will characterize the times.
He also adds to the sense of urgency by describing how horrible it will be for those whose travel is impeded: "But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! And pray that your flight may not be in winter or on the Sabbath" (vv. 19-20). Some of these things described the events that occurred in 70 A.D.; when Jerusalem fell to the Romans. But our Lord's next words make it clear that it is describing something more: "For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be" (v. 21).
Our Lord didn't go into specific detail about the times. But He tells us enough to let us know that He knows what is involved in them. In letting us know that they are unprecedented, He assures us that they are not a surprise to Him. Their intensity is only by His divine permission and design.
The intensity of our 'lessor' trials are also under His command. He is faithful; and will not permit us to be tempted beyond what we are able to bear (1 Corinthians 10:13).
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And note also that, when it comes to the great tribulation . . .
3. HE STATES THE DIVINE LIMITATION THAT SOVEREIGN LOVE PLACES ON IT (v. 22).
He describes the times realistically; that "unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved" (v. 22a). This is yet another reason why we know that He is speaking of something beyond the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. That was a horrible tribulation; but it was not so intense that, unless it had been cut short, all flesh would perish. But the great tribulation will be that intense. It will be a time in which, unless God's hand intervened to cut it short, the complete destruction of all life could occur.
And as we all know, such a thing is dreadfully plausible today. It's now within the capability of fallen man—just by himself—to completely destroy all life on the surface of the earth. How much more will this be true when, in addition, the devil himself unleashes all his rage on humanity and inspires the fullest extent of human sin to overwhelm the world!
But the total destruction of all flesh will not occur! We have a promise from the Lord; "but for the elect's sake" (that is, for the sake of those He has chosen for Himself) "those days will be shortened" (v. 22b). Our Lord lets us know that not only is the beginning point of the great tribulation defined by Him, but so is its end. It will only go 'so far'; and no further. It cannot harm His people any more than He permits it to.
And if this is true of the greatest of all tribulations, how much more is it true of the lessor tribulations you and I face?
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Now; He goes on to further show us His sovereignty over the great tribulation by the fact that . . .
4. HE WARNS IN ADVANCE OF THE DECEPTION THAT WILL CHARACTERIZE IT (vv. 23-27).
He says; "Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There!’ do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you beforehand" (vv. 23-25). He lets us know that the times will be characterized by great deception.
Not only would pretenders arise, who say that they are Christ or one of His spokesmen; but they will even be demonically empowered to perform miracles to—as He says—"deceive, if possible, even the elect". But notice carefully that He says, "See, I have told you beforehand". All of these things are known to Him in advance; and so, He warns His people.
He goes on to say, “Therefore if they say to you, ‘Look, He is in the desert!’ do not go out; or ‘Look, He is in the inner rooms!’ do not believe it. For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be" (vv. 26-27). No one would need to be fooled by someone saying, "We have found Christ! He has returned to the earth and is now publicly revealing Himself to people in the wilderness!" No one would need to be deceived if someone says, "The Christ has come back; and He is now holding secret meetings in a secret temple or in a highly restricted lecture hall!" He assures us that, when He returns, everyone will know it. It will be as obvious as the lightning flashing across the sky—from the east to the west.
And again, this shows us His sovereignty. He knows the deception that will characterize the great tribulation; and He warns His people in advance. Likewise, He knows the temptations that may make us stumble in our own lessor times of trial. He teaches us in His word what to do.
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Now; the closing verse is a strange one. He says, "For wherever the carcass is, there the eagles [or, as a better way to translate it, "the vultures"] will be gathered together" (v. 28). This has been interpreted in so many different ways that it's hard to keep track!
But I believe it has one more important thing to reveal to us about our Lord's sovereignty over the great tribulation in that . . .
5. HE AFFIRMS THE RIGHTEOUS JUDGMENT THAT WILL COME AT ITS END (v. 28).
I believe that our Lord is speaking here, in a proverbial way, of the promise of divine judgment on the moral corruption of this world. As Paul said in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-3;
It's described in the most dreadful manner imaginable in Revelation 19:17-21; where, concerning the time of the Lord's return, the apostle John writes,
As gruesome as this picture is, it nevertheless assures us that the end of the great tribulation will result in the full victory of Christ over His enemies, and of the full judgment of the evil of this world.
And likewise, we can be assured of Jesus' full victory in the 'lessor' tribulations you and I suffer.
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The practical lesson we can learn from our Lord's instruction in this passage, then, is this: Whether it's the lessor trials you and I suffer now, or the greatest of all possible tribulations that will characterize the period just before His return—Jesus Christ reigns as sovereign over the trials of His people.
May we remember that, even in the worst of times, we truly are in the best of hands.
2These events are described in detail in the Apochrypha; specifically in 1 Maccabees 1:10-62; 6:7; and 2 Maccabees 6:3-6.
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