Last week I hope that I planted within you the understanding of the necessity to especially be attentive to your spiritual life during these unprecedented times. None of us have ever experienced any situation similar to the one through which we are passing now, and predictions of what the future holds are only nebulous suppositions. Despite the promises spoken by the current presidential candidates or by anyone else, there is no one on earth who can truly offer any surety.
But Jesus has also given us some promises about the future. These are the promises that I have chosen to believe. There are many reasons that I could give you why I accept these promises of God as indisputably secure, but among those reasons is this: I have seen in my own life how Jesus has made good on his promises to me in the past. On many occasions I have trusted him in difficult situations, and he has always fulfilled his word—100% of the time.
It is because of my confidence in the words of Jesus that when he tells us that he will return one day, I believe him. And it is for this reason that I remain watchful, for as he said in a story he told to illustrate his return, we do not know the hour when his return may be. We do not know if he will return “in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning.”
Forewarnings and Promises from the Mount of Olives
The most extensive comments that Jesus made about his return were spoken one day as he was sitting with his disciples on the Mount of Olives, which was across a valley from the temple of Jerusalem. They had all just visited the temple, and as they were leaving the temple area, his disciples commented to Jesus how beautiful the buildings were.
I do not know what it is about great and magnificent buildings that enthrall us so. We, as people, build great structures, adorn them expensively, and then admire how wonderful they are. Cities pride themselves for their skylines of tall structures, and people dream of living in huge mansions or in unique and picturesque and secluded cabins. I myself like to look at splendid buildings and so did the disciples.
“What wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings,” they said to Jesus.
Jesus’ answer to the disciples was perhaps tinged with a bit of irony. “Do you see these great buildings?” He then added, “Not one stone will be left upon another which will not be torn down” (Mark 13:1-2, NAS).
this comment, the disciples fell into deep thought. As they accompanied Jesus
down into the
By this time in their relationship with Jesus, they seem to have begun to understand that Jesus was going to leave them and then return sometime in the future. At least they sometimes seem to see this. The return of Jesus, they correctly thought, would mark the end of the present era and usher in the new. However, they probably assumed that the return would be quite soon, not in millennia.
With the general confusion that they had about the whole situation and with all of these thoughts unsettling their minds, they sat down with Jesus after the hike up the slope of the mount. As they sat opposite the temple area with the valley in between, a few of the disciples questioned Jesus, “Tell us, when will these things happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:3, NAS).
the destruction of the temple itself, Jesus could have, had he wished, answered
that question very quickly and easily. It was to be only a few years later (AD
70) that the Romans would invade
However, Jesus did not use the Roman invasion when giving His answer. He understood that the question was a far larger one.
It is important to see that the fulfillment of prophecy sometimes does not all occur at once. There are often stages to the fulfillment—steps in the process, if you will. If one says, for example, that the fulfillment of the destruction of the temple occurred in AD 70, he would be correct. However, there may also be more to the fulfillment. If we are content to check off the fulfillment of certain prophesies as if there is no more to be done (like this one), we put ourselves in danger of missing the meaning of what is yet to come.
The Misleaders and the Deceivers
Jesus, in giving the disciples an answer to their question about “when?” and “what will be the sign?” did not immediately tell them some of the things that they could expect to happen. Rather, knowing the danger of hastily interpreting prophecy, the first words of Jesus in response was, “See to it that no one misleads you” (Matthew 24:4, NAS).
There are many who would mislead, and there are many who are the misled. It may not always be deception, but it can also be that. However, in regards to prophecy, what often occurs is that a person comes to believe that he has come upon a new understanding or revelation of the prophetic word; and in his enthusiasm, he also convinces others of his perspective. This “new understanding,” if it is wrong, can lead people astray. It may not be deliberate deception on the part of the teacher, but the results are the same—people are misled.
It is, of course, a possibility that we may come to a new understanding of what we did not before see, and it is also true that we can learn from one another. Nevertheless, we do well to take to heart the first words of Jesus on this subject when he says, “See to it that no one misleads you.”
Once misled, it becomes more difficult to find the correct way again. If a hiker in the woods becomes unsure about where he is, he can retrace his steps until he comes to a familiar place in which to regain his bearings. But if the hiker ignores the fact that he has allowed himself to become lost and instead presses on without regard to correcting his error, he becomes hopelessly lost.
This, I think, is the case for those who for many years have followed very questionable teachings of prophecy. Deep down inside, they know that perhaps they have given too much legitimacy to questionable teachings; but to recognize that fact is to admit that they have been misled, which is a humbling experience. So instead of retracing their steps back to the familiar, they press on.
Rather than doing this and becoming hopelessly confused, Jesus would say it is better to “see to it that no one misleads you.”
However, it is truly the deceivers more than the misleaders who Jesus has in mind here. He tells his disciples, “Many will come in My name, claiming, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many” (Matthew 24:5, BSB).
This is the great danger. One who is lost or unconfident about his position too quickly puts his hope in anyone who offers some direction. However, it is often those who talk the most assertively and claim to possess many “insights” into prophecy that are themselves the most lost. Their self-confidence only arises from the fact that they have been able to convince others to follow them in their deceptive lie. The more followers that these teachers are able to deceive, the more arrogant they become.
Finally, they see themselves not merely as one who leads others to understand prophecy, but as the very object of prophecy. They begin to see themselves as “the Christ—the anointed one.” These are the words that Jesus said the deceivers would say about themselves. It has happened time and time again and will continue to happen.
Jesus then continued his lesson to the disciples about the end of the age by telling them, “You will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not frightened, for those things must take place, but that is not yet the end. For nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom” (Matthew 24:6-7a, NAS).
To avoid being deceived, it is essential to understand realistically the condition of the world. Terrible things happen in the world. The earth is never without war, and we have never been more aware of this fact than we are today. There was a time in the western hemisphere when wars and conflicts in far-off regions affected our lives very little, but this is no longer true. Since the days of World War II, it has been a rare decade when the United States has not been involved in war or conflict in some region of the world.
But it is not only our own involvement in wars that has made us aware of the prevalence of conflict. Worldwide communications have become so vast and so rapid that we now hear of wars in countries and among people and regions that, several years ago, we did not even know existed. During the time when we were able to distance ourselves from the fact of war, we may have been able to convince ourselves that the world is, after all, a rather peaceful place. But when the war comes to our doorstep and into our living room, we must learn to accept the undeniable. Far from being peaceful, the world is instead a very hostile place.
Nevertheless, it is not the wars and rumors of wars that will bring the end to the age. It is true that, in some sense, these are the conditions or the symptoms that lead up to the end. This is because the kingdom of this world is slowly consuming itself. This slow self-destruction can be hidden for a time, but with each deception, a price has to be paid.
In some ways, it is not unlike some of the large corporate scandals we have seen in past years. Large companies with slick, gigantic, corporate office buildings have been able to deceive shareholders and employees alike that the company was not only thriving, but also continuing to grow into the future. However, apart from the exorbitant salaries of the CEOs and apart from the false earnings numbers printed in the glossy-papered quarterly reports, everything about the company had already collapsed. The only thing that kept these organizations in business as long as they did was the fact that they were able to conceal their dishonesty and continue their deception.
The world system is much the same. Outwardly, we see marvels of civilization and electronic gadgets that are the stuff of the last generation’s science fiction. We see glittering and glitzy cities and powerful people closing financial deals worth billions of dollars. However, it is the wars and rumors of wars that belie the reality that the world is trying to put forth. The kingdom of the world is slowly consuming itself, and one day it will no longer be able to maintain its deception. It will collapse upon itself and be brought to trial. The judgment will be at the Throne, before which the world will one day stand.
Not all disasters in this world are a result of human failure or actions. The act of war is. In every war, someone somewhere decides to bring a disagreement to open conflict. But natural disasters are a different kind of catastrophe. Jesus told his disciples of another reality of this world. “In various places,” he said, “there will be famines and earthquakes” (Matthew 24:7b, NAS). These are the tragedies that befall us without our input or our consent. In our common parlance, we call these disasters “acts of God” because they are not directly caused by man. In a sense, it is accurate to call them that because God is indeed sovereign over all of creation. Nevertheless, remote as it may seem, even these disasters are indirectly caused by man.
The rebellion of man against the sovereignty of God has had far-reaching effects. It has reached even into the natural realm. The apostle Paul alludes to this when he says, “the creation was subjected to futility,” and, “we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth until now” (Romans , 22, NAS).
We should take particular notice that Paul calls these things “the pains of childbirth” because it is also pains of childbirth to which Jesus likened the signs of the end of the age when he spoke of them to his disciples. “All these things,” Jesus said, “are merely the beginning of birth pangs” (Matthew 24:8, NAS).
To expand this thought about birth pangs and to return to what Paul said about creation being subjected to futility, the full reading of that passage is as follows.
For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. Romans 8:20-22, ESV
By all accounts given to me, the pains of the woman in labor that accompany human birth are very excruciating. These pains themselves seem to have been a result of the rebellion of man in the Garden of Eden against the sovereignty of God (Genesis ). However, without meaning to minimize the pain that the mother feels, there is also an underlying joy to the anguish. A child is about to be born.
Jesus makes another reference to this same example at another time when he was speaking to his disciples about his impending death.
A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So it is with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. John 16:21-22, NIV
No one welcomes the pain of childbirth, but the new mother is no longer thinking of the pain as she holds her newborn baby in her arms. Her attention is on the little life that has been born into the world. Her joy supersedes her pain.
In much the same way, when Paul speaks of the whole of creation suffering the pains of childbirth, he speaks not only of the struggle, but also of the anticipation of what is to come. The present may be painful, but the future is “the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans ).
When Jesus speaks of the human and natural disasters that befall us now, he also likens them to birth pangs that for the present are painful. However, it will be necessary for creation to go through these pains in order to bring in the new creation. Much of what Jesus told his disciples on the Mount of Olives that day was meant to prepare them for trouble that would come.
However, at the same time, it was meant to be an encouragement because they would understand that these birth pangs would not be the undoing of God’s plan. God means to usher in the new heavens and the new earth. We are to know that at the end of the pain there will be joy.
Personal Disasters of the Believer
Famines and earthquakes are indiscriminate in nature and are not directed against anyone in particular. Wars, on the other hand, often are. It is true that even in war the aggressor often has no particular quarrel with the people of the country that he is invading, but only with the leadership of the country. Or it may be that he is trying to take over the control and wealth of the nation.
Despite this generality however, in our own day we do sometimes see things becoming very personal in warfare. The people of Israel have been recipients of this type of hatred. There is an intense hatred not only for the nation of Israel by some countries of the region, but also a hatred for the people of Israel. We have also seen other examples of this personal hatred, such as the genocide that occurred in Rwanda in 1994.
But none of us should think that we are immune from being the targets of this kind of hatred. We are presently seeing a resurgence of this in the United States. In some places of the world to which I have traveled, I was hesitant to let people know that I was an American.
As Jesus continues his description of what his followers can expect in the last days, we see that the trouble becomes very personal indeed. The irrational hatred of that day will not be because of an affiliation with any particular nation or race, but the hatred will be directed instead against the followers of Christ. There will be increased persecution. It will be so great that many will not bear up under the pressure.
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. Matthew 24:9-10, NIV
In Mark’s account of this talk on the Mount of Olives, he includes a little more of the description that Jesus gave of this persecution in the last days.
You must be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues...Brother will betray brother to death and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. Mark 13:9a, 12-13, NIV
There is no minimizing of the fact that these will be difficult days for those who follow Jesus. When telling the disciples about what they should expect, Jesus did not try to prevaricate. So intense will the times be that families will sacrifice even their own relationships and deliver one another over to the authorities for execution. Brother will turn against brother, and the parent-child bond will turn hostile. Those of one’s own family will betray them to the death.
The Gospel to the Nations
In my quotation of Mark’s account of what Jesus said, I left out something that the gospel writer inserted right in between the warnings of persecution. This is what I omitted:
On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them. And the gospel must first be preached to all nations. Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit. Mark 12:9b-11, NIV
This opportunity to speak of God before kings and bringing the gospel to the nations seems to be much of the reason that God is allowing this persecution against His people to take place. As it was then, it remains God’s intention that the entire world hear His Word.
It is instructive for us to see that the Christian will be called to testify before the rulers of the nations, much as Jesus Himself testified before the rulers of his day. We also see this situation personified for us in the person of Paul the apostle, as he was unfairly charged with crimes. Those false charges brought him to speak the message of God not only before local authorities, but eventually brought him to the capital of the then-known world to speak before the Emperor of Rome (Acts 25:11).
Jesus advised His followers that, when that day should come, they were not to be anxious about what they should say in their defense. It will be on those very occasions that the Holy Spirit would speak through them. In this way, it would be the Holy Spirit who would actually be giving the testimony.
The Examples of Stephen and of the Church at Smyrna
If we remember the case of the first century Christian named Stephen, who was a leader in the early church, we have a picture of what this testimony of the Holy Spirit may be like in the final days of the earth.
As Stephen was explaining the way of Christ, he received much opposition. However, despite the fact that his listeners took exception to what Stephen was teaching, we read that “none could withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking” (Acts , ESV). Stephen was then called before the Jewish council on some false charges.
When the priests saw the face of Stephen, it looked to them like “the face of an angel.” This reference to his appearance is not meant in the common way that we today would call the face of a beautiful person or a child, “angelic.” Instead, it is used in a way that was to mean that there was a manner about Stephen that demonstrated the wisdom of God—wisdom that those hearing his words could not refute. Those same people who were unable to counter the reasoning of Stephen, out of their frustration eventually stoned him to death.
That is the reaction of those of the world whose own reasoning is shown to be lacking. They do not know how else to respond, so they think the only manner of dealing with it is to remove the one who exposes their error.
It will be similar in the final days of the earth. Those believers who are left will speak the Word of God with such power that there will be no refuting it. That is because they will not speak from their own reasoning. Rather, it will be the Holy Spirit who will give them utterance. Also, like Stephen, those people will be hated by all for the sake of Christ, and many (I think most) will be executed.
I think that the promise of Jesus in Mark 13, when he said that those who endure to the end would be saved, does not necessarily mean that they will avoid an execution, but only that they will be delivered from the situation. This deliverance may not necessarily mean escape from death.
We again remember Stephen who, just before he was stoned to death, saw “the heavens open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” As he was being stoned, his last words before he died were, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts , 59). It was in this way that Stephen received his deliverance.
In the book of Revelation, a book that deals
mostly with the end of days on this present earth, this is what the Lord says
Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death. Revelation 2:10-11, ESV
The Ultimate Fulfillment of the Gospel to the Nations
As a church of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, we have often looked upon this duty of bringing the Gospel to the world as having been given to us. In some sense, it has indeed been given to us. In the commission that Jesus gave to the church, shortly before He ascended into heaven, He told His followers, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19, NAS).
However, the ultimate fulfillment of the prophecy of making disciples of all the nations does not come through the efforts of the church, but is associated with this specific future time and the events that surround it.
It is well that we notice that the final fulfillment of this prophecy does not come about because we, as a church, have made effective campaigns to reach the nations or to spread the gospel to every tongue. Instead, the ultimate accomplishment of this word comes about in that future time, when the believers of that day do not even worry about preparation of a defense of the gospel.
By the association of this fulfillment with the events of the last days, we see that it is the Holy Spirit who will speak. It is the Holy Spirit through whom the nations will hear.
Please understand that I do not mean to belittle or criticize present day missionary efforts, for it is certain that these efforts are also the responsibility of today’s church, and I myself have been involved with that very work for many years. It is simply that we should be cautious not to misrepresent what our responsibilities (or abilities) are. As we study the book of Revelation, we see that even in the very last days, God is proclaiming the “eternal gospel” through an angel, flying in mid-heaven and bringing this message to those who are on the earth (Revelation 14:6-7).
As for the Christians in that future day that Jesus is talking about, they will not make any friends of the nations with the testimony of the Holy Spirit given on their behalf. Jesus told his disciples, “You will be hated by all because of My Name, but the one who endures to the end, he will be saved” (Mark , NAS).
In the days in which we live, there are many voices telling us what we should and should not believe. Concerning the coronavirus, some are telling us one thing and others telling us other things. We have medical professionals, politicians, even facebook friends who have all the advice that they say that we need to know.
Concerning preparations for the coming unknown economic situations, we have investment counselors, strategists, and the neighbor down the road telling us the correct way to protect our assets.
Voices, voices, voices. I am not saying it is wrong to listen to the opinions of others, but each opinion must be weighed by the One Voice we must all learn to follow.
Jesus tells us this: “My sheep listen to My voice; I know them, and they follow Me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one can snatch them out of My hand. My Father who has given them to Me is greater than all. No one can snatch them out of My Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” (John 10:27-30 BSB)
 This word, “misleads,” is translated “deceives” in the BSB, KJV and NIV and “leads you astray” in the ESV.