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Author:Rev. Ted Gray
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Congregation:First United Reformed Church
 Oak Lawn, Illinois
Title:Signs of the End of the Age
Text:Matthew 24:1-36 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:End Times

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Lord, Our Lord, Thy Glorious Name

When Peace Like a River           

Marvelous Message We Bring

How Great Thou Art

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Ted Gray, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Pastor Ted Gray
“Signs of the End of the Age”
Matthew 24:1-36

It is hard for us to imagine what a magnificent building the temple was. Herod spent close to 50 years reconstructing it. It was a monument to his name, he had rebuilt it for his glory, not the glory of the Lord. It was an amazing feat of engineering and construction. Some of the stones were 37 feet long and more than 12 feet high. The temple was so impressive that people said if you hadn’t seen it, you could have no idea of what a beautiful building was. It was beyond comprehension.

So imagine the shock of the disciples, when after remarking about the beauty of the temple, Jesus says to them, in verse 2: “I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

The disciples were shocked by that statement, so as Jesus is sitting on the Mount of Olives, overlooking the city of Jerusalem, some of His disciples come to Him asking when this will happen. To them the destruction of such a magnificent building, which was the center of the worship, the place of sacrifice, the place where the law of Moses was taught, certainly must mark the end of the world.

The Double Question

Because they equated the destruction of the temple with the return of the Lord and the end of this world as we know it, they ask a question in verse 3 which is a double question: “When will this (the destruction of the temple) happen?”  And secondly, “What will be the sign of Your coming and the end of the age?”

Jesus gives an answer to both questions, but the answer is purposely intertwined. For instance, He speaks about the destruction of Jerusalem, which happened in the year 70. That is what the warning in vs 16-20 entails.  In verse 16 Jesus warns them to flee to the mountains.  The warning was given because those who stayed in Jerusalem would be massacred. More than a million Jews were slaughtered when Titus and the Roman army invaded Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. Many Christians of that day, heeding this warning of Jesus, fled to Pella and other safe regions.

Travel on the Sabbath and travel in the winter were both hard. The Pharisees had all sorts of Sabbath Day restrictions on travel, and winter in the Mideast, just as winter here, can make travel difficult. Travel in any era is inevitably challenging for nursing mothers and pregnant women.  So Jesus compassionately fore-warned His disciples, and through them, all Christians in that era, to flee Jerusalem when Titus and the Roman army would attack.

And yet although the passage speaks of the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70, it also clearly speaks about the day of the Lord’s return, as described in verses 29-30.  As Jesus intertwines His answer to the double question of the disciples He uses examples that would apply to both situations. We see that in verse 15 where Jesus quotes from Daniel about the abomination that causes desolation. (Daniel 9:27; 11:31; 12:11).

That is a reference with multiple applications. In its original setting it refers to an evil Greek ruler by the name of Antiochus Epiphanes. In the year 168 BC he desecrated the temple, sacrificing pigs, which were unclean animals, on the alter. It was an act of defiance and ridicule done to further subject the Jews of that day to his oppressive rule.

But Daniel’s use of the abomination which causes desolation also refers to Titus and the Roman army as they desecrated and destroyed the temple. Daniel’s usage of the term is sometimes called “prophetic fore-shortening.”  It likens prophecies such as the one in Daniel to mountains that are seen from a distance. From a distance it may look like one set of mountains, but as you get closer you see there are more mountains beyond. The same is true of some Old Testament prophecies such as Daniel’s.  Initially it appeared to apply just to Antiochus Epiphanes, but then, beyond that application, Jesus points to another.  He points out that another evil rule, Titus, will also be a fulfillment of "the abomination which causes desolation."

And then, just as mountains may have range after range, a third application is given to the "abomination which causes desolation." That description is also used to describe the anti-Christ who will come to power just before the Lord returns.

The Signs

Because the answer to the disciples’ question is intertwined, this passage of Scripture has many different interpretations. Many well-meaning Christians examine these signs and try to figure out when Jesus will return. But Jesus purposely intertwined His answers to these two questions so that we don’t know the time of His return. Instead, we are to live each day ready for the return of Christ.

As Jesus answers the two questions of the disciples, He described what are commonly called “the signs of the times.”  However, in looking at those signs, especially the first ones, it is important to realized that they are, in the words of Jesus, “the beginning of birth pains” (v. 8). Most of these signs have been evident throughout the history of our fallen world.

Certainly many deceivers claiming to be Christ have come. That is the first sign and Jesus puts a warning before it in verse 4-5: “Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name, claiming, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many.”

Throughout history there have been many who claimed to be Christ.  In recent history we recall such false teachers as Rev. Sun Young Moon and Jim Jones, who both claimed to be the Messiah. Using a different angle, the New Age Movement teaches that each one of us is God because God is in everything, therefore everything is God.  Historically that teaching is known as Pantheism.  There is nothing new about it; it is simply an old heresy in a new package.

In verse 6 and 7 Jesus speaks of wars and rumors of wars. Often when war breaks out, especially in the Mideast, there are professing Christians who predict that the return of Jesus is right around the corner. After all, there is war in the Mideast! But in verse 8 Jesus says, “All these are the beginning of birth pains.” They are not yet the reality, they only point ahead to that reality.

The same is true for famines and earthquakes, spoken about in verse 7. Famine has certainly been around since the dawn of history. The book of Genesis records a great famine which affected the entire world of that day, and was only alleviated through God’s gracious work in the life and rulership of Joseph after his brothers had sold him into slavery in Egypt.

Still today approximately 1 out of 8 people in the world are starving to death. That is a truly tragic figure, but it does not necessarily mean that the return of the Lord is eminent. Rather, it reminds us to look with compassion to the needs of those less fortunate than we are, and then to do what we can to alleviate their suffering, that they may see the compassion of Christ through our compassion given in His name.

Earthquakes are also mentioned in verse 7 and are included in what Jesus terms “the beginning of birth pains.”  Yet here again, when a major earthquake rumbles and destroys, many are quick to announce the eminent return of Christ. Yet earthquakes have been a part of life over the millennia of human existence.

In verse 9 we read of another sign: Persecution of believers and hatred by all nations. Persecution of believers has been evident in our world since Cain killed Abel. There has also been persecution by governments throughout history. Within two to three decades after Jesus spoke these words Nero would systematically kill a great number of Christians in Rome. Throughout the early history of the church there were periods of severe persecution. And that has been the case through history as a whole, whether at the time of the Reformation, when so many were killed, or today, where we see the continual persecution of Christians.

It is often pointed out that every religious view is accepted except for the Christian view. Woe to anyone who would say a word against Islam, or Hinduism, the New Age Movement, or even Satanism. But it is socially acceptable to mock and ridicule Christianity and the teaching of the Holy Bible. Despite the widespread persecution we have not yet seen the fulfillment of verse 9 where Jesus says, “...You will be hated by all nations because of Me.”

But that day is coming. The time will come when all nations will be poised together in their hatred and persecution of believers. What Jesus says in verse 21 applied not only to the great destruction in the year 70, of the Jewish nation and the temple, but also of the persecution that will be evident in the world just before Jesus returns. Jesus said, verse 22, “For the sake of the elect, those days will be shortened.”

Another sign that Jesus mentions, there in verse 12, is an increase in wickedness, “Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold. Ever since the fall into sin there has been great wickedness on the earth.  In Genesis 6:5 we read, The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.

However, with the progression of time we have seen an increase in wickedness, an increase that Paul described in striking detail to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:1-5, But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God - having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them.

While our sinful nature is all too creative in its progression toward sin, technology also fuels that increase in wickedness. Technology can be a great blessing on the one hand. But on the other hand, it can also be a stone of stumbling for many. Although Jesus does not bring it up in this passage, Daniel 12:4 speaks about an increase in knowledge before the return of the Lord. And we see that in astonishing ways in our world.

For instance, the electronic technology of the Internet is a wonderful tool for righteousness. There are innumerable good commentaries available for free on the Internet. Every version of the Bible is available for free with all sorts of study helps.  Almost every church has a web page, and sermons can be heard or read. The Internet can be a great blessing for the believer who has a hunger and thirst for righteousness.

But is that what most people use the Internet for?  You know as well as I do that the Internet has so often fueled the increase in wickedness. The Internet has saturated our culture with pornography, violence, and use of social media to deride others until, in several tragic cases, it has led to the suicide of teenagers and even pre-teens. Technology, not just the Internet but technology as a whole, is used by many to sin in greater more devious and heinous ways than ever before.

In verse 14 we read of a sixth “sign of the times” but it is, in the words of William Hendriksen, in his commentary on Matthew, the first “preliminary sign.”  In other words, it is the first sign that doesn’t exist throughout history, but rather is a sign which anticipates a quick return of Christ and the end of this world as we know it. In verse 14 Jesus says: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”

Just as we have seen in our lifetime an increase in wickedness, we have also seen a heart-warming and truly amazing increase in the spread of the gospel. We have seen in our lifetimes, even those of you who are young in years, an ever-increasing witness of the gospel to the nations, even the remote nations, of the world.

As an example, at the beginning of the last century the Bible had been translated into about 300 languages. By the end of the last century, the Bible had been translated into over 2000 languages, and in the 14 years or so of this century we continue to see the rapid spread of the gospel as the Bible is translated into even more languages and dialects.

The last of many signs in this passage (and the second “preliminary sign” in William Hendriksen’s view) speaks of a time of great tribulation for believers which immediately precedes the return of the Lord.

There has always been tribulation, trouble, persecution and hardship for God’s people in this world. John 16 closes with those blunt, yet comforting words of Jesus: “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

While there always has been tribulation for Christians, the tribulation immediately preceding the coming of the Lord will be linked to the hatred of all nations. One of the missionary letters we recently received described the deaths of two missionaries. They were martyred for their faith. That type of persecution will continue to grow and will bring great tribulation to believers. We see that animosity toward Christianity in our own nation. We also see that animosity toward Christianity in many of the actions of the United Nations. And the time will come when verse 9 is fulfilled: “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of Me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people.”

And it is in that setting that the Lord will return. Jesus said, “Immediately after the distress of those days ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory” (29-30).

Many theories have been proposed on what the sign of the Son of Man is. Some expect that a vision of the cross will be unfurled for all to see as Jesus returns. However, from parallel accounts in Mark and Luke, where the sign is not mentioned, it is best to understand the sign simply being the return of Jesus. As John says in Revelation 1:7-8, Look, He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him; and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of Him. So shall it be! Amen.  “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”

Focusing on the Savior, Not the Signs

It must have been quite a scene there on the Mount of Olives. This conversation took place on what had been a very busy Tuesday, three days before the crucifixion.  It was probably late in the afternoon, perhaps the sun was glistening from the gold dome of the temple as the whole city lay beneath the view of the disciples as they asked their questions of Jesus.

But how does it relate to us? Isn’t it a little confusing that Jesus answered both questions by intertwining the answer? Why did He do that when He could have said, “In the year 70 a cruel Roman Emperor will destroy the temple and Jerusalem, killing more than a million people, but that won’t be the end of the world. The world will exist until such and such a year.”?

Instead, Jesus intertwined His answer on purpose, which leads to our application: The day and hour are unknown (36) so that we will always be ready for the Lord’s return (42), focusing on Him and not on spectacular, counterfeit signs.

So many people throughout history, and so many people today, focus on the signs instead of the reality that we must live each day as though it was our last day, the day Jesus returns or the day He calls us out of this life into the life to be revealed.

So many people look for the spectacular signs. Yet Jesus specifically warns against the spectacular.  In verse 24 He says: “For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect - if that were possible.” 

The same warning is given in 2 Thessalonians 2:8-12: ...The lawless one (that is, the Antichrist) will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of His mouth and destroy by the splendor of His coming. The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders, and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.

Instead of looking for the spectacular signs, we are to focus on living godly, righteous lives each and every day. We are to do so because no one knows the day or the hour when Jesus will return and the world as we know it will end. Nor do any of us know the day or hour of our own death.  Jonathan Edwards, whose sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God" led to a great revival in our nation in 1733, had this resolution: “Resolved never to do anything that I would be afraid to do if I knew that if was the last hour of my life.”

That is the right type of resolution for anyone who takes these words of Jesus to heart concerning His return and the end of the age as we know it. May that resolution be yours and mine. Instead of making time tables on when we think Jesus will return, instead of looking for spectacular signs of the times, may we instead live each day to the glory of our Lord, in obedience to His Word, resolving never to do anything that we would not do if we knew it was the last hour of our earthly lives! Amen.

                                          - bulletin outline -
As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately,
“Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen (the destruction of Jerusalem), and what
will be the sign of Your coming and the end of the age?” - Matthew 24:3
                              “Signs of the End of the Age”
                                          Matthew 24:1-36
I.  In this passage Jesus answers two distinct questions of His disciples:
      1) When will this (the destruction of the temple) happen? (1-3)
      2) What will be the sign of Your coming and the end of the age? (3b)
      3) The answer to both questions is purposely intertwined (4-34)
II. The signs: The first five are the beginning of birth pains (8):
      1) Many deceivers claiming to be Christ (4-5, 11, 24)
      2) Wars and rumors of wars (6-7a)
      3) Famines and earthquakes (7b)
      4) Persecution of believers and hatred by all nations (9)
      5) An increase in wickedness (12)
      6) The preaching of the gospel to all nations (14)
      7) The distress of great tribulation (9, 22-24, 29)
III. Application: The day and hour are unknown (36) so that we will
       always be ready for the Lord’s return (42), focusing on Him and
       not on spectacular, counterfeit signs (24; 2 Thess. 2:9; Rev. 13:13-14)


* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Ted Gray, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2014, Rev. Ted Gray

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