Forum Class Notes for December 12, 2004
Notes from Ray C. Stedman
THE LONG LOOK AHEAD: Matthew 24:1-3
How would you like to know the future? Who does not want to lift, if possible, the curtain that hides the things to come, and read the future as well as he can the past? Many are trying it today with varying degrees of success, but the only book with a batting average of 1.000 is the Bible. That's one of the things that makes it such a fascinating book. It is always up-to-date and filled with the most pertinent, often exciting information. In fact, it is more than up-to-date--it is ahead of the times.
There are many predictive passages in both Old and New Testaments, but none is clearer or more detailed than the messaged delivered by Jesus himself as he sat on the Mount of Olives overlooking the city of Jerusalem during the turbulent events of his last week before the cross. These words have immense significance for us for they are a revelation of the ultimate fate of earth. From his point in time (about A.D. 32) he looks ahead to foretell the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and the disturbances connected with that singular event. He looks on across the centuries and outlines the perils that lie between his first and second coming, thus describing the very age in which we live. He looks past the present day to that time which he calls "the end of the age" and sets its events before us in searing and vivid detail, culminating in his own return to earth and the ushering in of a new day.
Unfolding Events: As we read his perceptive words we shall discover that what is coming is but the unfolding of events which will grow out of movements and processes already at work in human society. The future has already begun, and our Lord's outlining of its course will greatly help us to understand what is taking place in our own day. In this first chapter we shall look only at three verses which introduce Christ's amazing message to us and provide for us the key to its structure and the events out of which it came. They are the first three verses of Matthew 24:
"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 this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?'"
It sounds strange to us that the disciples should come of Jesus at this time and point out to him the beauty of the Temple buildings. He had often seen the Temple and the disciples had frequently been with him as he taught in its courts. Why then this sudden interest in the buildings? It all grew out of the astonishment of these disciples at the recent actions of the Lord. The chapter opens with the pregnant phrase, "Jesus left the temple." When he left the Temple on this occasion he never entered it again. He left it after having pronounced upon it a sentence of judgment, recorded in the closing words of chapter 23:
"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold, your house [the Temple] is forsaken and desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'"
All of this comes at the close of the most blistering sermon he ever delivered. It was addressed to the scribes and the Pharisees, and consisted of a series of "woes" pronounced upon the hypocrisy of these religious leaders. They were supposed to be the teachers of the people but were actually hindering them from knowing the truth of God. Jesus began his ministry with a series of eight blessings (the Beatitudes, Matthew 5), and he ended it with a series of eight woes. Nothing arouses more vehement anger in the heart of God than religious hypocrisy. Throughout the Scriptures, God's most scorching terms are reserved for those who profess to know him but who behave quite contrary to their profession- especially for the self-righteous.
Cleansing the Temple: Having completed this sermon, Jesus for the second time, cleansed the Temple of the money-changers. John records the first occasion (2:13-21) which occurred at the beginning of the Lord's ministry. Many do not realize that he did this twice, but Mark records that when he came to Jerusalem for the last week, he went into the Temple and began to drive out those who bought and sold. Further, Mark records a most significant action of our Lord's. Mark says, "he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple" (Mark 11:16).
This strongly suggests that he stopped the priests who bore vessels through the Temple in order to bring the blood of the sacrifices offered in the outer court into the holy place where it was to be sprinkled before the altar. Jesus arrested this procession. He brought to a close, for the first time since the days of the Maccabees, the offerings of Israel! They were later resumed by the Jews but without meaning or divine sanction. When Jesus himself became upon the cross "the Lamb of God which takes away the sins of the world," he thereby declared all other sacrifices as no longer of any meaning or value. Then, having stopped the sacrifices, the next day the Lord stood in quiet dignity and pronounced the official sentence of rejection,
"Behold, your house is forsaken and desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'"
Having said this he left the Temple, and the disciples went with him. Silently, they walked down through the valley of Kidron and up the other side to the Mount of Olives. There Jesus took his seat, upon one of the rocks that overlooked the city and the Temple area. The disciples were troubled and confused. They could not understand his actions or his words concerning the Temple. The Temple was the center of the nation's life and they regarded it with holy awe as the very dwelling place of God among his people. Its beauty was famous throughout the earth and they could not believe that God would allow any harm to come to it. So they began to point out to Jesus the strength and beauty of the Temple. To this he responds with words which distress them even further:
"Truly I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down."
They cannot believe that this will happen. They knew, of course, that the nation was under the bondage of Rome. They had no final authority in their own city or land. But it was well known that the Romans were lovers of temples. It was their boast that they preserved, if at all possible, the temples and monuments of any country they conquered. They had been in power in Palestine for many years and they had not destroyed the Temple. There seemed no good reason, therefore, why this Temple should ever be destroyed. But Jesus solemnly assures them that there would not be one stone left standing upon the other.
Test of a Prophet: We shall surely miss the full meaning of this sentence if we fail to see that Jesus is giving here his credentials as a prophet. The law of Moses required that whenever a prophet essayed to foretell the future it was necessary that he give a sign by which his prophecy could be tested. That requirement is found in Deuteronomy 18. In the midst of a prophecy concerning the coming of the Messiah, Moses said, "The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brethren-him you shall heed." Then, a little later, he quoted God as saying: "I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brethren; and I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not give heed to my words which he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him." (Deuteronomy 18:18, 19)
Many Bible scholars agree that this prophecy was a foreview of the coming of Jesus Christ. He was that prophet, raised up of God among the people of Israel, who would be like Moses and would speak words that the nation should hear. Moses went on to say:
"'...but the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name which I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.' And if you say in your heart, 'How may we know the word which the LORD has not spoken? 'when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word which the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously, you need not be afraid of him." (vv. 20-22)
In the practical carrying out of that admonition it became customary for the prophets to give the people a prediction of something that would occur in the near future. When it came to pass as foretold, the people would know that this was indeed an authenticated prophet. But if the sign did not occur as predicted, the prophecy in its entirety was to be rejected as not from God, and the prophet was exposed as false. So Jesus predicts the downfall of the Temple in the near future as a sign that all else he includes in this discourse is true. This is what lay behind the request of the disciples for a sign associated with his coming.
In Luke 21:20, we have other details of this predicted overthrow of the city and the Temple. There Jesus adds, "But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near." Forty years later, the Roman armies under Titus came in and fulfilled the prediction to the very letter. With Titus was a Jewish historian named Josephus who recorded the terrible story in minute detail. It was one of the most ghastly sieges in all history. When the Romans came the city was divided among three warring factions of Jews, who were so at each others' throats that they paid no heed to the approach of the Romans. Thus, Titus came up and surrounded the city while it was distracted by its own internecine warfare. The Romans assaulted the walls again and again, and gave every opportunity to the Jews to surrender and save their capital destruction.
During the long siege a terrible famine raged in the city and the bodies of the inhabitants of the city were literally stacked like cord wood in the streets. Mothers ate their own children to preserve their own strength. The toll of Jewish suffering was horrible but they would not surrender the city. Again and again they attempted to trick the Romans through guile and perfidy. When at last the walls were breached Titus tried to preserve the Temple by giving orders to his soldiers not to destroy or burn it. But the anger of the soldiers against the Jews was so intense that, maddened by the resistance they encountered, they disobeyed the order of their general and set fire to the temple. There were great quantities of gold and silver which had been placed in the Temple for safekeeping. This melted and ran down between the rocks and into the cracks of the stones that formed the Temple and the wall around it. When the Roman soldiers finally took the city, in their greed to obtain this gold and silver they took long bars and pried apart these massive stones. Thus, quite literally, not one stone was left standing upon another. The Temple itself was totally destroyed though the wall supporting the area upon which the Temple was built was left partially intact and a portion of it remains to this day, called the Western Wall.
In this remarkable fulfillment, confirmed so strongly by secular history, is convincing proof that God will fulfill every other part of this amazing message fully and literally. As Jesus himself said in the discourse, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away." With the certainty of its fulfillment underscored so strongly, let us now note the clue to the structure of the discourse, as given in these opening verses.
Three Tough Questions: There are actually three questions which the disciples ask the Lord. The first is,
"Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?"
They mean of course, the destruction of the Temple. As we have already seen, the answer is recorded by Luke. It would be when they saw Jerusalem surrounded by armies. A number of them were still living when Titus fulfilled the prediction.
The second question is, "What will be the sign of your coming? The third is "[What will be the sign] of the close of the age?" These questions are perfectly natural in view of the instruction of Moses to ask for a sign when prediction is attempted. Without a doubt there is a great deal of difference between what the disciples had in mind when they asked these questions and what we are thinking of when we read them. They asked out of confusion. There were many things they could not see, or would not believe, and so their questions were difficult to answer. They were much like the little boy who asked his father: "Daddy, why does the sun shine in the daytime when we don't need it, and not at night when we do?" That kind of question is difficult to answer, not because the answer is so hard, but because the question is so wrong. To some degree, that was the problem here.
In many ways we can understand much better than they what their questions meant, for we have the history of twenty centuries to look back upon. Also we accept the importance of Christ's death and resurrection, against which they were in revolt. Therefore, they could not understand all that he said to them. He had been puzzling them for months and they were now quite out of harmony with him. He had told them plainly of his coming death and resurrection, but they refused to give heed. Since they would not allow themselves to face the terrible specter of his death, they could not have any clear idea of what he meant when he said he was coming again.
Thus, when they asked him here about his coming they did not have in mind a second advent. They did not picture a descent from heaven to earth, nor anything at all of what we mean when we speak of Christ's second coming. They had in mind a political revolution and the crowning of Jesus as King and his subsequent presence among the nation as its acknowledged King and Messiah. They used a very interesting word for coming. It is the Greek word, "parousia." This word appears four times in this passage, in verses 3, 27, 37, and 39. It is not the usual word for coming. It means more than the mere arrival of some person; it also implies his continuing presence after he arrives. This is important, for much of the understanding of this discourse will turn upon the meaning of this word. The English word "coming" appears other times in the message, but it is not the same Greek word and has a different meaning.
Even after the resurrection these disciples were still asking Jesus questions that reflected a political concept of his coming. In Acts 1:6 they asked, "Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" They were obviously still thinking of a political rule over the nations of the earth. He did not deny that this will eventually occur, but simply reminded them that the times and seasons are the Father's prerogative to determine. Thus, when they asked him on the Mount of Olives, "What will be the sign of your coming?" it is not a question about his coming again, but of his presence in the nation as its king. But, as we shall see in our Lord's answer, he treats it as a legitimate inquiry concerning his second advent.
The Close of the Age: They also ask for a second sign, concerning the close of the age. It is not, as in the King James Version, "the end of the world." It has nothing to do with the end of the world. The world will go on for a long time after the events of the Olivet Discourse are fulfilled, but the age will end with those events. In this matter they were much more clearly informed, though they unquestionably felt that it was a time that lay immediately ahead. They were sure that they were living in days approaching the end of the age and that they were about to enter the events that would mark the close of the age.
We must remember that these men were well acquainted with the Old Testament. They also had heard Jesus teaching the parables of the kingdom (Matthew 13) and had heard him speak of a close of the age when he would send his angels throughout the earth to gather men to judgment. They knew the Old Testament predictions of Messiah's rule and reign over the earth. Doubtless they knew, too, of Daniel's remarkable prophecy (Daniel 9) that there would be a period of 490 years, (seventy weeks of years, or 490 years), from the rebuilding of Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity until the time of Messiah the Prince. From the prophecy they may well have known that the 490 years were almost completely expired, and it was little wonder that they expected the close of the age to be very near.
What they could not see and could not be expected to see was that there would occur a wide valley of time between the hour in which they asked their question and the close of the age in the far distant future. We cannot blame them for this, for it is difficult to distinguish the two comings of Jesus in the Old Testament prophecies. Peter wrote that the prophets foresaw "the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glory." But to them it seemed as if they were one great event. What looked to them to be one great mountain range of fulfillment was actually two widely separated ranges with a great valley of time in between.
For instance, in Isaiah 9 there is a well known prediction of a coming child. "For to us a child is born, to us a son is given." That is a prophecy of our Lord's first advent as a baby in Bethlehem. But the rest of the verse says, "...and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called 'Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.'" That is clearly referring to his reign in the days of the kingdom which would cover the earth. It will not be fulfilled until the Lord returns to earth again, but these two events are brought together into one verse with no hint of any intervening time.
The Sign of the End of the Age: The Lord now takes their questions and in answering their questions and in answering them reverses the order. They asked about the sign of his presence and the sign of the end of the age. He answers the last one first. The sign of the close of the age is found in verse 15, "the desolating sacrilege...standing in the holy place." We shall examine that much more fully later on. The sign of his coming is given in verse 30, "then will appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven." This, too, we shall examine in detail in due course, but throughout this whole passage the Lord takes pains to make clear to his disciples that the end of the age lay far in the distant future.
Here in this great prediction are illustrated two great principles of prophetic fulfillment. First, there is often an unspecified interval of time which may operate to delay final fulfillment far beyond what may otherwise be expected. Jesus warned in Acts 1 that "the times and the seasons [are] not for you to know," but remain always in the Father's sovereign choice. The second principle is that of double fulfillment. When Jesus predicted encirclement of Jerusalem by hostile armies and its conquest and overthrow, it was fulfilled to the letter less than forty years later. But that historic fulfillment became in turn a preview of another day in the far distant future when again Jerusalem would be surrounded by armies and would face its hour of destruction on a greater scale than ever before. Then it will be the close of the age. The age which is thus to be closed is the age in which we now live.
Notice that Jesus speaks to these men as though they would live to see all the events he predicts. Obviously, therefore, he is speaking to them as representative men. Some of them saw the destruction of Jerusalem as he had foretold it, but none would live to see the close of the age, and none would pass through the Great Tribulation. They were uniquely representative men. They were representatives both of Israel and the church. At the time he spoke to them they were Jewish believers, men of Israel, all of them. As such they represented the nation and God's dealings with that remarkable people. But after the cross and Pentecost they were Christians, part of the Church, neither Jew nor Greek. They would then belong to a unique body which has a task to fulfill throughout the intervening centuries before the end times. Thus the message includes truth for the church in its relationship to the present age, and also truth for Israel in its time of trouble to come at the end of the age. These disciples are representatives of both groups and our Lord speaks to them as such.
As Jesus sits looking out over the city he is facing the darkest hour of his life. He knows the scheming of his enemies and the opposition that even then is sharpening against him from almost every quarter. He knows what Judas is planning. His enemies think they are doing their nefarious deeds in secret, but he knows it all. He knows the frailty of his friends and that he can never depend upon them. These very disciples who cluster around him on the mountain will in but a few hours forsake him and flee. One of them will even deny him with curses. He knows all that. He sees the darkness of the coming centuries but he looks through them to the light beyond. When all around him seems utterly hopeless he quietly declares what the end will be, without the slightest uncertainty or doubt.
All things, he says, all events, will find their significance and meaning in relationship to him. Any event which is not related to his purpose in the age is worthless and useless, without real meaning or significance. As we listen to his declaration of what the course of human history will be, we must each face the inevitable question: In what way is my life related to the great events that Jesus says will take place? Am I contributing to what will ultimately eventuate in anarchy and distress among men and in the failing of hearts for fear of what is coming to pass? Or am I contributing to the program of God which is moving through history to bring the age to its appointed climax and to bring again from heaven the Son of God to establish his kingdom over the earth? It is one or the other.
We do not live our life in an isolated segment of time. What is happening today in the affairs and councils of men is bringing to pass what our Lord says will occur. We can often trace the connection if we see the events of our day in the light of what he says in this discourse. The great and supreme question is not, what shall I do with my life, or what can I make of it, but, how does it relate to what God is doing? When God is through with history, this is the way it will be. What part will I have played in the process? These are the questions this Olivet Discourse forces upon us.
THE AGE OF CONFUSION: Matthew 24:1-14
"What will be the sign of your coming and [the sign] of the close of the age?" This is the question the disciples ask Jesus as he sits on the Mount of Olives with the faithless city spread out below him. We have noted already that the question is not very well put. Their concept of his coming is not at all clear, and they think that the close of the age is perhaps only a few years away. Therefore, the answer Jesus gives is at first seemingly evasive or at least indirect. Matthew says,
And Jesus answered them, "Take heed that no one leads you astray."
The Big Point--Don't Be Fooled! In our understandable haste to come to the great events he predicts for the future, let us not miss the heavy emphasis he makes in this opening word. It is the dominant note of this whole discourse. The age will be a time of great uncertainty as to the meaning of events. It will be frightfully easy to misinterpret and therefore be misled. The phrase "lead astray" forms the structure around which the whole message is built. He used it again in verse 5,
"For many will come in my name, saying, 'I am the Christ,' and they will lead many astray." again in verse 11,
"And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray." Once again in verse 24,
"For false Christs and false prophets will arise and show great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect"
Because of this continuing possibility, the Lord's exhortation throughout the message is, "Watch!", i.e., keep your eyes open. Evaluate! Test! Try the spirits! Bring everything to test that you might understand the true character of movements and pressures, for the predominant note of the age will be one of deceit and confusion. Then he proceeds to show to these men that they are already confused in their thinking that the end of the age lies immediately ahead. From verse 5 through verse 14 he clearly indicates that there would be a rather long, indeterminate period before the end of the age would begin. These men knew from the prophet Daniel that the end of the age would not be a single spectacular event but a series of events, covering several years. The Lord begins carefully to trace the age which they could not see, the parenthesis of time in which we now live. If we note carefully the time phrases he employs to lead up to the answer to the disciples' question we shall have no difficulty with this section. He is most emphatically not giving so-called "signs of the times" here. To the contrary, he repeatedly indicates that he is tracing the age. For instance, he says in verse 6, "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." Therefore, despite the commentators who insist that "wars and rumors of wars" are a sign of the near approach of the end, our Lord says quite otherwise. In verse 8 he adds,
"...all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs."
He is saying, in effect, "These events are but leading up to the end of the age about which are asking." Then, finally, in verse 14, after listing a long series of events, he says, "...and then the end will come." It is at this point that he at last begins to answer directly the disciples' question, "What will be the sign...of the close of the age?" From verse 15 through verse 31, he gives in detail the events that will occur during the end-of-the-age.
Danger Ahead: How then shall we characterize these events he outlines which are to occur in the intervening time before the end of the age is reached? They are of enormous importance to us for we live in this time before the end. If, as we have seen, the dominant note of this discourse is to warn against the allure of the false, the glamour of the phony, and to indicate the ease by which the uninformed may be led astray, then it is immediately evident that in these intervening events he is listing the perils of the age. These are the threats to faith, the powerful forces by which men and women, observing the events of their day, may be misled into confusion and error. These perils to faith are forces, deceptive in their character, which will mislead men throughout the whole course of this intervening time. They make it difficult to believe, they act powerfully upon men's minds to turn them from the unseen spiritual kingdom to depend only upon the things of sense and time. Each peril, when once introduced, runs on to the end of the age. Let us now examine these perils one by one. The first, in verse 5, is the peril of the counterfeit, of Phony Christs:
"For many will come in my name, saying, 'I am the Christ,' and they will lead many astray."
The apostle John wrote at the close of the first century, "For many [antichrists] have gone out into the world." The term, "antichrist", does not indicate someone who is openly against Christ, like an atheist or a pagan. Rather it is one who appears instead of Christ, and in this sense opposes true Christianity. It is a counterfeit Christ.
Of course it includes the originators or propagators of all the false cults which have arisen throughout the course of the age, beginning with the first century. We have witnessed the rise of many in the last few decades, especially those with the label, "Made in America," like Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormonism, Christian Science, and others. These are outwardly Christian in language and activity but their basic message is anti-christian, rejecting the true Christ. Any person or organization which purports to be Christian in its outward aspects, but whose message is actually opposed to Christian faith is an antichrist. It is the rise of these groups our Lord predicts. What a peril to faith they have proved to be.
But by no means are these the most deceptive of the anti-christian voices. Perhaps our Lord is thinking of even subtler expressions. We will miss the full meaning of his words if we look only for those who actually say, "I am the Messiah," or "We have the true Christian message." Are they not more dangerous who claim to do what only Jesus Christ alone can really do? "I am the Way," says that lonely Man who died forsaken upon the Cross. "We are the way," say all the many voices that attract today: politics, patriotism, social work, literacy crusades. These are often really fine works, but they claim to meet the basic problem of human life, they become antichristian. Their claim is false, and many are deceived throughout the course of the age. They offer to lead men into peace without forgiveness, and thus are really evil masquerading as angels of light. How many are being misled by these siren voices which neglect the narrow way by which an individual is confronted with the person of Jesus Christ-the one way to redemption and cleansing and forgiveness of sin? The second peril Jesus foresees is that of conflict.
"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..."
Clearly he is not predicting any one specific war, or revolution. He is characterizing the general course of the age. It will be marked by continual turmoil among nations, and the fears, the alarms, the degradation, the horror, the misery, of war. His words telescope together all the effect that wars produce on the human heart.
What a threat to faith war is! Many a young man has been deceived by the glory of war and has left home to proudly march away. But in the carnage and slaughter of battle his eyes have been opened. He has come home, disillusioned, sickened by it all, and must continually fight bitterness and despair. That is the deceitfulness of war. Many can still remember the horror of the mushroom cloud hanging over Hiroshima, the scream of air-raid sirens, and the terrible challenge to faith these events had produced. How many lost all flickerings of faith in bitter resentment against the wars in Viet Nam or Korea? Another peril Jesus foresees is natural calamity.
"...and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs."
For almost two thousand years these natural calamities have been occurring. They are not, therefore, "signs of the times." Jesus simply states that during the intervening age there will be famines, pestilences, earthquakes, and other natural disasters, and each one will be a threat to belief in God. Sometimes Christians mistakenly try to convince skeptics that God is love by parading the evidence of nature. They describe the beauty of the sunset, the glory of the mountains, the abundant provision in the natural world for the needs of man. But what becomes of that argument when the tornadoes and earthquakes bury one's children in their ruins, and famine takes the bread from their lips, and parents must watch their children's swollen, distended bodies with no food to give them? Where, then, is the argument for the love of God as revealed in nature?
How do you preach God's love to those who are stumbling along in dumb terror, fleeing the horror of a volcano which is belching out smoking ashes and burying their homes and cities? Who has not felt the shivers of doubt that come when we read of terrible disasters caused by natural calamities and must square them somehow with our concept of a God who rules and reigns in the midst of all human events? Granted, such doubt can be answered by a clearer understanding of the purposes and workings of God, but how many are pressured by grief to believe the apparently obvious and will not wait for an explanation? Surely we need our Lord's warning, "Take heed that no one leads you astray." Another terrible threat to faith, persecution, appears in verse 9,
"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."
Here the peril is a religious persecution. This began shortly after the day of Pentecost when Stephen and James were slain and disciples were scattered. Who is not familiar with the terrible stories of Christians who were thrown to lions, burned as human torches, mangled by wild beasts, killed by gladiators, tortured, torn apart by wild horses, or martyred in other dreadful ways? Another great period of martyrdom broke out at the time of the Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries. We can read the accounts in all their gruesome details in Fox's Book of Martyrs.
But do you know what is the most tortuous century of all? The century in which more Christians have died for their faith than in any other is the 20th century! It is estimated that more Christians were tortured and slain in twelve months during World War II than died under Rome in all the early centuries. In the city of Seoul, Korea, ten thousand Christians have already suffered martyrdom for their faith. Some authorities claim that over fifteen million Christians have been slaughtered in Russia, Soviet-controlled Europe and other Communist countries. Since Christianity began, no generation has seen such world-wide persecution as is now in progress.
We can scarcely realize the cost of discipleship in certain places of the world. Recently a Christian magazine contained the account of a young Arab who had turned from Islam to Christ. The magazine told his story only because it could add in a footnote, "His body now lies buried on a hillside in his own native land. (He was slain by his own relatives.) We can now print his testimony because he can no longer suffer recrimination for it." Ask yourself, how many have wanted to be Christians, have heard the message, have been drawn to Christ by the preaching of the good news, but have taken a long look at the price they must pay in terms of misunderstanding, exclusion and ridicule, and have quietly melted back into the crowd? Jesus spoke of seed that would fall on shallow ground and spring up, but when the sun came out in burning heat, it would wither and die. How many in America would disappear from our churches if persecution began to break out? What an enemy to faith it is. How the heart trembles and quavers before the thought of torture, or sometimes even of misunderstanding! Then the Lord put his finger squarely upon another peril to faith, apostasy,
"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 wickedness is multiplied, most men's love will grow cold."
Undoubtedly we are approaching, in these words, the end of the age. A gradually increasing manifestation of evil is indicated as the age nears its end. And what does all this mean? Is this not a description of that sneering contempt for standards that once were held just but now are widely forsaken?
"And many will fall away, and betray one another, and hate one another." This is the terrible pressure of apostasy. When combined with persecution it represents a powerful double attack upon a quiet trust in Christ. It is highly disturbing to be left standing alone; to see, one by one, those who previously were on your side, depart, give in, succumb to the pressure and leave you unsupported and alone. If they also betray you in the process, it is almost unbearable. "Demas...has [forsaken] me, [having loved] this present world," writes the apostle Paul from his cold prison in Rome. Even to such a doughty spirit as his, that must have been a severe blow. What young person today does not feel the pressure of the world's sneering contempt for sexual and social standards that were once held by almost all? How many have thus "fallen way," driven by the spread of a philosophy of moral relativism that teaches that only the situation can determine whether a thing is bad or good? And when such folly is openly advocated by leaders of the church, who can help but feel his faith tremble a bit?
In close connection with this Jesus adds, "And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because wickedness is multiplied, most men's love will grow cold." Here the peril is cynicism. It is cold and brutal indifference which arises out of the teaching of "false prophets." Do not read this as though these are religious men, necessarily. The false Christs the Lord mentioned earlier were unquestionably religious, but here he uses the term "prophet." It refers to any who speak authoritatively-philosophers, professors, scientists, statesmen-those leaders of thought who shape and mold the thinking of common man. What they will teach is the sanctity of self-interest, the insistence on having "my rights" no matter what happens to the other fellow. The true prophet insists on the rights of God, but the false prophet upholds only the rights of man. Jesus predicts that a tragic and inevitable sequence will follow. First, many will be led astray by the false teaching of the leaders of thought; "because [of this], wickedness [will be] multiplied" (the Greek word used here for wickedness is "anomia," lawlessness); and the result of lawlessness is, "most men's love will grow cold."
One needs only to read the daily papers to see how true this is. The overthrow of moral limits always destroys the fire and glow of love. The psychologists and philosophers who seek to measure the pulse of our times tell us that the major problem of our age is meaninglessness-the loss of fire in life, the coldness of the human heart. Since men cannot live without fire they replace true love with the false fire of lust, and its inevitable consequence, hate. Watch those who feel they can, with impunity, step over the moral bounds of the past. See how they grow hard and callous and cynical. Life becomes for them an increasing tangle of emptiness.
There seems little reason to doubt that here is the explanation for the rocketing divorce rates of our day and for the rapidly increasing frequency of sex crimes and crimes of violence. Often these are accompanied by moral apathy and callous indifference to cruelty. Only recently the papers reported the cases of two mothers who lost all natural affection. One threw her baby in the path of a truck, and the other left hers on a dump heap. How true these words are: "because wickedness is multiplied...love...grow[s] cold."
Anti-Christian Currents: Here are the clanging gongs that Jesus says will be sound throughout the age, to drown out if they can the still small voice of faith. He warns against the peril of counterfeit faith, of human conflict, of natural calamity, and callous cynicism. These are the sweeping, powerful currents that flow throughout the age, gathering as a vast and resistless flood of deceit; distorting, twisting, deluding, so that men are deceived and misled and the whole race is at last swept along over the brink of destruction into the black and raging waters of the world's last day. How can anyone resist this? Who is equal to those pressures? Who has the wisdom to distinguish the truth from error in these powerful voices? Who can point out the way of faith when these things are happening?
The Power To Stand: Fortunately for us, Jesus does not stop with this black picture. He goes on to a further unveiling. It is of enormous importance, for it contains the secret power-the power to stand against deceit and delusion and to avoid the fate of being "led astray." It is introduced by that corner word "but."
"But he who endures to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nations; and then the end will come."
Despite the pressures, despite the impossibility of the natural mind's remaining undeceived, despite the subtle siren voices that sound-nevertheless, some will see through the distortions, the perversions of truth, the silken deceptions, and will stand true. Some will endure to the end. These will not and cannot be overthrown. They will be saved. The end referred to here is not the end of the age, for obviously, no one could live through the entire twenty centuries of this intervening age. What Jesus means here is the end of life. These words of Jesus are often distorted to mean that if someone does his best to hang on and live a good clean life, then, if he endures to the end he will be saved. But it is quite the other way around. If he is truly saved, then he will endure to the end and the fact that he endures makes obvious to all that he is saved.
No doubt it is true that there is no use having a good beginning if there is not a strong finish; but it is equally true that there is no possibility of a strong finish unless there has been a good beginning. Only those who have genuinely found Christ will endure to the end. What our Lord is bringing out here is that the strength of character which permits them to stand fast demands an unceasing flow of power, for they are exposed to an unceasing flow of pressure. They can stand only if there is power available that can keep them every single moment of the way. That power is revealed in what these people say. They will not stand, but they will speak as well. "This gospel of the kingdom," Jesus said, "will be preached throughout the world, as a testimony to all nations." The good news they preach reveals the secret of their ability to stand. They tell everywhere the story of One who "has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son" (Colossians 1:13). Amid the pressures of the age they reveal that they have heard and obeyed the good news, and there stands with them One whose very life is imparted to them and who can keep them against all the deceit of the world in which they live.
It was the Lord himself who said, "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me." No matter how the wolves howl, fangs drip, and opposition mounts on every side, still they will follow him. Why? Because, as he goes on to say, "I give them eternal life; and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand." This is what keeps them and makes them able to stand in the midst of a flood of deceit. They will move against the stream, sometimes in blood and tears and terrible loneliness, but they will not succumb.
The Hour No One Knows: When this good news of "the kingdom of his beloved Son" has been preached as a testimony to all nations, then shall the end of the age begin, said Jesus. That is one unmistakable mark of the approaching end. It is supremely significant that this present generation is the first generation in twenty long centuries of which it may be unreservedly said that the gospel is being preached throughout the whole world to all nations. This is properly a "sign of the times" which marks the near approach of the end. When the sirens of the Last Day begin to moan, and the panicky, jostling crowd tries to get in the door at the last moment, then will be unveiled the deceitfulness of the age. But only those who have learned to walk day by day will be able to endure to the end.
In the light of this clear revelation of the character of the age, the exhortation of Jesus takes on new impact. "Watch," he said, "for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming." The question he leaves with us is: What is there in your life that is different than another's? Do not prate about outward religious differences. They do not count. They can all too easily be a part of the "broad way that leads to destruction." Have you stood at the narrow way and done business with the One who says truly, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life." Is his life in you? Has he come to indwell you, to strengthen and keep you every day by a continual impartation of his life through you, in terms of your personality? This alone will make the difference. The test of reality is endurance, and only those who thus stand have every really known him.
THE WORSHIP OF MAN: Matthew 24:15-22
"Then shall the end come?" With these dramatic words, Jesus begins to answer the question of the disciples, "What will be the sign of...the close of the age?" He has prefaced these words with a powerful telescopic view which sweeps through all the intervening centuries and describes their character as one of deception and confusion. Now he focuses upon the (to the disciples) far-distant period, which he calls "the end of the age." Without further delay he describes, in Matthew 24:15-22, the sign of the close of the age:
"So when you see the desolating sacrilege spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains; let him who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house; and let him who is in the field not turn back to take his mantle. And alas for those who are with child and for those who give suck in those days! Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a sabbath. For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. And if those days had not been shortened, no human being would be saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened."
The Lord's language here is the most somber he could employ. He is speaking of a time of trouble that is coming, the like of which has never been seen before in all human history. It will be a time of superlative distress, of unprecedented peril to human life, a time of shattering, staggering suffering, such as has never been seen before. There have been many black moments in history, but never one like this. For those who will be living in Judea (in and around Jerusalem), it will be a time to act promptly and quickly to get out of the city. It will be a time for emergency action. There will be no time left for the usual occupations of life.
These words are so fantastically suggestive that we must not hurry over them. In the words appearing in parentheses, "let the reader understand," the apostle Matthew is warning us that there are things hidden here which are not apparent on the surface. He is urging us to think, investigate, examine, and thus understand all that may be involved. We must be careful, then, to relate these words to other Scriptures, and especially to those in the Book of Daniel which Jesus specifically mentions.
Daniel's Prophecy: For the present let us seek to understand this sign of the close of the age. It will be, says Jesus, "the desolating sacrilege spoken of by the prophet Daniel." No book of the Old Testament has been so unfavorably dealt with by the critics as the Book of Daniel. The validity of its authorship by Daniel has been scorned and it has been ascribed to some unknown writer who lived no more than a 100 to 160 years before Christ; its prophetic content has been flatly denied; and in many ways it has been more violently attacked than any other book in the Bible. Yet it is sheer presumptive arrogance for any alleged disciple of Jesus Christ to take a view of Scripture that contradicts the view of the Master. The Lord Jesus here clearly regards the Book of Daniel as a valid prophecy, inspired by the Holy Spirit, and accurate in detail.
The sign our Lord refers to is mentioned in Daniel at least three times. It is the sign of a man, a man who offers himself to the Jews to be worshiped as God. The disciples clearly understood that he was referring to the predictions in Daniel of the coming of a man who would take away the continual burnt-offering of the Jews and instead offer himself as "the abomination which makes desolate" or the desolating sacrilege. That man is described in Daniel 8:23-26:
"And at the latter end of their rule, [that is, the rule of certain kings who will come upon the world's scene in the Middle East], when the transgressors have reached their full measure, [that marks the time when evil has come to its full expression], a king of bold countenance, one who understands riddles, shall arise. His power shall be great, and he shall cause fearful destruction, and shall succeed in what he does, and destroy mighty men and the people of the saints. By his cunning he shall make deceit prosper under his hand, and in his own mind he shall magnify himself. Without warning he shall destroy many; and he shall even rise up against the Prince of Princes; but, by no human hand, he shall be broken. The vision of the evenings and the mornings which has been told is true; but seal up the vision, for it pertains to many days hence."
A Double Fulfillment: Note that Daniel was told that the vision was not concerning his own days but "pertains to many days hence." The critics insist that this was fulfilled in the turbulent days of the Maccabees in 168-165 B.C., when a Syrian king, Antiochus Epiphanes, did indeed desecrate the Temple in Jerusalem, offer a sow upon the altar, and erect a statue of Jupiter to be worshiped. But though that was undoubtedly an historic foreview of the final "abomination of desolation" it could not have been the fulfillment of Daniel's prophecy, for otherwise Jesus would not have said, more than 165 years after Antiochus, that men could yet expect to see "the desolating sacrilege spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place."
Another reference in Daniel to this sacrilege is found in chapter 9. It is in the midst of the tremendous prophecy that is called the "the vision of the seventy weeks." This was an announcement to Daniel by the angel Gabriel that God had marked off a period of 490 years (seventy weeks of years), which would begin when the Persian king, Artaxerxes, issued a commandment to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem (fulfilled in 445 B.C.) It would terminate with a period of terrible trouble during which a coming prince would cause the Jewish sacrifice and offering to cease and would thus establish the abomination which makes desolate.
The angel said that first seven, and then sixty-two of those weeks (a total of 483 years) would end just before the Messiah would be "cut off." A period of indeterminate length would then intervene before the 70th or final week (seven years) would. The angel said that first seven, and then sixty-two begin. During that indeterminate period the city of Jerusalem would be destroyed and the Jews would endure wars and desolations until the end. The actual words are these in Daniel 9:26, 27:
"And after the sixty-two weeks, an anointed one [literally, Messiah] shall be cut off, and shall have nothing; [that is clearly the crucifixion] and the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary. [This was fulfilled under Titus forty years after the crucifixion]. Its end shall come with a flood, and to the end there shall be war; desolations are decreed. And he [the prince who is to come] shall make a strong covenant with many for one week; and for half of the week he shall cause sacrifice and offering to cease; and upon the wing of abominations shall come one who makes desolate, [the abomination of desolation], until the decreed end is poured out on the desolator."
One further glimpse of this remarkable "prince who is to come" is given in Daniel 11:36-39. There he is called simply "the king."
"And the king shall do according to his will; he shall exalt himself and magnify himself above every god, and shall speak astonishing things against the God of gods. He shall prosper till the indignation [the great Tribulation] is accomplished; for what is determined shall be done. He shall give no heed to the gods of his fathers, or to the one beloved by women; he shall not give heed to any other god, for he shall magnify himself above all. He shall honor the god of fortresses instead of these; a god whom his fathers did not know he shall honor with gold and silver, with precious stones and costly gifts. He shall deal with the strongest fortresses by the help of a foreign god; those who acknowledge him he shall magnify with honor. He shall make rulers over many and shall divide the land for a price."
All of these passages in Daniel agree concerning the coming of a man who shall be the fulfillment of our Lord's prediction and shall be the sign of the end of the age. There are also other references in Scripture to this man. Paul is unmistakably describing the same man in 2 Thessalonians 2:3, 4:
"Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God."
Once again, we have a clear description of him in the Book of Revelation, where John describes him in 13:5-8:
"And the beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months; it opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. And authority was given it over every tribe and people and tongue and nation, and all who dwell on earth will worship it, every one whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slain."
Before he uttered these words on the Mount of Olives, Jesus himself had referred to this coming man when he said to the rulers of the nation on one occasion, "I have come in my Father's name, and you do not receive me; if another comes in his own name, him you will receive." (John 5:43). This is that Antichrist which has been predicted in all the Scriptures, and who shall symbolize in his person all that stands against God. There are many other references to him in the Old Testament prophets but we do not have the space to consider them all.
Will the Temple Be Rebuilt? Perhaps you are asking, "If the temples was destroyed by Titus in A.D. 70, what is this 'holy place' in which the Antichrist will appear?" The obvious answer is, the temple must be rebuilt in Jerusalem. The Lord is clearly indicating that there will come a time when the Jews will repossess the temple area. In view of that expectation perhaps the most important event since the first century was the capture of Old Jerusalem by the Jew in the Six Day War of 1967. For the first time since 1897 years (since A.D. 70) Jews were once again in possession of the temple site. It is now occupied by the Moslem mosque called the Dome of the Rock and the existence of that shrine raises a tremendous obstacle to the rebuilding of a Jewish temple. But there is no other place it can be built, for God decreed in the Old Testament that Jewish sacrifices can be offered there and nowhere else on earth.
No one knows whether the present possession of Jerusalem by the Jews can be maintained. And how they will surmount the problem of rebuilding a temple on the place now occupied by an Arab holy place is anyone's guess. But rebuild it they shall, for as Jesus said in another connection the "scripture cannot be broken." Rumors appear from time to time that plans for such rebuilding have already been completed, and even that the building itself has been partly prefabricated and is ready for assembly at almost a moment's notice. But all these reports must be taken with a grain of salt for prophetic interest is now running high and the wish is often father of the thought.
A Literal Event---A Specific Place: "When you see," said Jesus, "the man who fulfills the qualifications described in the Book of Daniel, sitting in the temple and claiming to be God, then you will know that the end of the age has arrived." It will be a literal event to occur in a specific spot on earth at a definite moment in time. The prophecy of the seventy weeks in Daniel, already referred to, clearly indicates that there yet remains a seven-year period to be inaugurated before the prophecy is fulfilled. It also declares that it is in the middle of these seven years that the Antichrist will desecrate the Jewish Temple by his claim to be God. It is evident, therefore, that it is only the last three and one half years of this seven year period which can be properly called "the end of the age." This is also designated in other places as lasting for forty-two months (Revelation 13); a time, two times, and half a time, (Daniel 7); and one thousand two hundred and sixty days, (Revelation 12). These all add up to three and one half years. Daniel also calls this the "time of the end."
But the sign of the desolating sacrilege does more than mark the beginning of this end time. It also describes it. The signs of Scripture are never intended merely to be milestones by which we can mark off the progress of time. They are, instead, intended to reveal the hidden principles of the time in which they appear. For instance, the Jews were continually demanding of Jesus that he give them a sign that he was the Messiah. He said to them, "No sign shall be given...except the sign of the prophet Jonah." He went on to explain: "For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." (Matthew 12:39,40). His own burial and resurrection, then, was to be the sign. When that sign occurred they would understand the meaning of his coming.
The sign of the resurrection did not come at the beginning of his ministry but rather at the end. But it dramatized the meaning of his coming. It stands forever as a symbol of the new life he came to give, the new principle by which men are intended to live, a wholly new creation. The sign here is also of that nature. It is not intended to mark the beginning of the end of the age, and also to indicate its character. It is a literal sign, but also symbolic.
Seeing the Invisible: If we could learn to read life rightly, almost everything is a sign. God is forever visualizing-materializing the invisible forces at work in human affairs into visible events. As we observe the events we can gain insight into what is going on behind the scenes. This is the secret behind all matter. We see visible objects around us--a table, a chair. We say we understand what is made of-wood, plastic, or other substance. But every one who is acquainted with modern science knows that this is not the whole story. What we are seeing is the visible manifestation of invisible forces. Electromagnetic forces joins together the atoms and makes up the object we see, so that what we call wood, plastic, or metal is really an invisible force making itself known in terms of a visible object. Something like this occurs in the realm of events as well as objects. When the event takes place that Jesus describes, and the Lawless One sits in the Temple of God it will be because, throughout the world, humanity has already enthroned itself as the only god man needs. The event in the Temple will be the visible representation of that world-wide fact. The day is coming, Jesus says, when the triumph of the scientific method, as we know it today, will bring man to confirm himself in the deadly delusion that he is his own god, and does not need any other. In that day the words of Psalm 2:1-3 will be fulfilled:
"Why do the nations rage, and the peoples imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD, and His anointed, saying, 'Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.'"
But that is the day when God will laugh, says the same Psalm, and he will say, "I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill. Kiss [the Son], lest he be angry, and you perish" (vv. 6, 12). God will have the last word, though man for the moment seems to triumph.
This is a "holy place" in the human spirit. It is the place that was intended by God to be the royal residence for His Holy Spirit. Thus man can become what God intended him to be: the human expression of the divine life, the means by which the invisible God is made visible in human affairs. But in that place man enthrones himself and renounces and rejects all other forms of authority, and declares there is nothing greater than man.
The triumph of the philosophy of humanism will not come suddenly into world affairs in the last day. The apostle Paul wrote in his own day, "the mystery of lawlessness is already at work." (2 Thessalonians 2:7). It had begun even in the first century. The apostle John wrote, already "many [antichrists] have" (2 John 1:7). No, it will not be a case of a sudden intrusion into the routine of daily human events. This idolatry of man has been building up throughout the centuries and is rapidly approaching the crisis when it will manifest itself, as the Lord describes, in a clear symbol of the times.
In our own day this lie of humanism grows gradually more powerful and persuasive. You can hear it on every side, in a thousand and one subtle variations. Recently a prominent scientist demanded that the scientific methods of observation, experiment, and logic be applied to the solution of the terrible moral and social problems of our day. Now there is nothing wrong with that idea in itself; what is wrong is the confidence expressed in his conclusion which indicated that nothing else is needed to solve men's problems. He said, "If it would [be applied] it would lead to a psychozoic kingdom [whatever that is] on earth for the ever-evolving human species." There is the empty dream, the web of illusion that man can be his own god, that he can live full and complete life without recognition of the authority and Lordship of Jesus Christ.
You can hear this lie when someone says, "I'm not going to worry about someone else; I've got to think of myself first." It is evident in business when young men are told, "Look, if you want to get ahead in this company you've got to forget about all these old-fashioned ideas of cheating and lying. There really are no such things, you know. It's only thinking that makes them so." It is flung at us daily on television and radio, and every magazine paints it in living color. We are all subjected to a constant din beating away at our ears, telling us that we can live complete and healthy lives without the need for God through Jesus Christ.
It is not that the world does not acknowledge a certain place for God, but that it is usually a very small place. It's nice to have God around once in a while, especially if you're inclined to be religious. Certainly it's all right to set aside one morning a week to go to church and tip your hat to him, but you can live a perfectly wonderful life without that. If that helps, fine, but if it doesn't, forget it. How widespread this philosophy is today! Man makes all the rules and can handle all the problems. Man exists for his own glory; down with anyone who thinks otherwise. That idea is dominant equally in the communist East and the capitalist West. Soon this widespread attitude will demand a figure, a leader, in whom all the excellencies that man sees are personified. It will find its ultimate expression in a man who shall appear, to satisfy the hunger for hero worship in the world.
The Bitter End: When this man appears the world will be ready to follow him to the end. But what is that end? Listen again to the Son of God: "the desolating sacrilege spoken of by the prophet Daniel." Literally it means that abominable thing which creates a desolation. How do you depict desolation? Most would think of a desert, a howling wilderness, a lifeless, dreary waste with the eternal wind moaning in torment across scorching barren sand. Already there are many lives like that today. Increasingly we hear pitiful reports of men and women, and even boys and girls, who experience nothing but futility and live lives of barren desolation. Why? Because of the abomination that makes desolate. Because of the abysmal lie that man can be his own god, that we have somehow in ourselves the adequate resources to satisfy, that we can find in some busy round of activity or pleasure that which meets the deepest need of our heart.
When men give themselves to that lie it is the abomination that makes desolate, and the desolation is in abundant evidence all about. Psychologists tell us the major problem today is meaninglessness, desolation, futility. Life is all surface and no depth. For this reason the suicide rate is rocketing to new heights. Jesus saw all this as he looked ahead across the centuries. It was little wonder, therefore, that the tears rolled down his face as he looked out over the rebellious city below him, where already the abomination which makes desolate had begun its evil work. He wept over the stubborn city as he weeps over the stubborn hearts of men today.
Against this background of increasing desolation the gospel come as glorious good news. When Jesus sensed the emptiness in the lives of many in his own day, he said, "If any one thirst, [Where do you thirst? In a wilderness!] let him come to me and drink...'Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.'" The solution for thirst in a desert is to drink, endlessly and continuously, of this foundation. There is an old hymn by Horatio Bonar that puts it very nicely.
"I heard the voice of Jesus say, / 'Behold, I freely give / The living water, thirsty one./ Stoop down, and drink, and live.' / I came to Jesus, and I drank / Of that life-giving stream. / My thirst was quenched, my soul revived, / And now I live in Him."
He's the answer. But notice what stands in the way. It is man's pride. He does not want to stoop down, to drink. We do not like to acknowledge the fact that we are dependent, even helpless. Man resists that, and because he does he will not stoop, and if he will not stoop he cannot drink. But if he does stoop and drink, he will, as the hymn declares, live! It will not be but one drink but a continual drinking, and therefore, a continual living. This is God's answer to the terrible emptiness and futility of our day.
We can be sure that as the age goes on to its close, things are going to get worse. The sense of futility will deepen, the suicide rate will increase, the pressures will become more intense. Yet through all those darkening days the gospel will offer its glorious invitation, "Thirsty one! Stoop down, and drink, and live" No one ever needs to learn to drink. Every baby is born with the ability to drink. The one thing the human heart can do without instruction is receive. Receive Jesus Christ, drink of him, ask him to come in to be in you a fountain of living water, Master of every moment of life. In your response to that invitation, the glorious promise will begin to be fulfilled.
WHEN THE DAM BREAKS: Matthew 24:21-22
Jesus is now describing to his disciples the end of the age. That end will not be a single climatic event but a chain of events, all of which are the inevitable consequence of forces that have been at work in society throughout the whole course of this age. The scriptures agree that the "desolating sacrilege" our Lord refers to is a man; a man of world prominence who enters the rebuilt temple in the city of Jerusalem and assumes the prerogatives and claims the powers of Deity. So serious is this act that it precipitates the greatest crisis the world ever will face. In Matthew 24:21,22 Jesus says of it:
"Then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. And if those days had not been shortened, no human being would be saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened."
Many have found these words hard to believe. They clearly refer to an hour unlike anything else in history. Till recent times it had been thought incredible that humanity could ever sink to such an ebb as to bring on a judgment of this character. But we must always remember that political leaders only express ideas which have been lying half hidden in human hearts, waiting only for the precise moment to emerge. Hitler did not teach the Nazis to hate the Jews; he only dared express in voluble terms the hatred and smoldering resentment of thousands of Germans who were scarcely aware of the terrible passions hidden in their own hearts. When this man of lawlessness takes his position in the temple of God he will only be expressing what long has lain dormant in human hearts.
But though this philosophy is recognizable within us and around us, this act of man's self-deification, expressing worldwide agreement, could never occur today! You ask, "Why not?" Because there are forces at work now which restrain its full manifestation, so that it cannot take over as a dominant philosophy of the race until these restraining forces are removed. In Matthew 13:30 Jesus said, in another place "Let both [the wheat and the tares, i.e., good and the evil] grow together until the harvest." In verse 39 he said, "The harvest is the close of the age." Till that time arrives, good and evil grow together, but the dominant philosophy is not evil, but good. It is only when the harvest arrives that evil is let loose to dominate the earth. There's a little jingle that expresses the way most of us feel about right and wrong.
"Our race had an excellent beginning, / But man spoiled his chances by sinning. / We hope that the story, / Will end in God's glory, / But at present the other side's winning!"
It seems to many that evil is triumphant in our day. But every athletic team knows the ease by which the rival team can appear invincible, made up of players ten feet tall. They do everything right, while we do everything wrong. Thus it looks to many as though wrong prevails more often than right, and that we are already in the last day. The dominant thinking of our day, strange as it may sound to our ears, is not evil, but good! Despite widespread injustice and the terrible prevalence of violence and crime, the scales have not been tipped in favor of the wrong. Quite rightly do we sing, "Though the wrong seem oft so strong, God is the ruler yet."
The proof of this is that evil must constantly disguise itself as good to be able to survive. Swindlers try to appear respectable. They never boldly and blatantly label themselves crooks. Prostitutes want to be called ladies. Tyrants pose as benefactors. Liars strive to appear truthful. Cheats and misers and perverts, and a whole host of others, hunger after more respectable titles. Only good is really acceptable. Evil must dissemble and appear what it is not, to gain acceptance. This alone is ample proof that against the massive power of evil so evident today is arrayed an even more massive power for good.
Man often lives in open rebellion today, but he lives also in guilt. He knows that he needs God and in the hour of his need he often seeks God. Even communists, who in theory deny the existence of God, in practice often take great pains to disguise their evil to make it look moral and just. Occasionally they even drop expressions which indicate their own deep hunger for God. Evil is under restraint today, hemmed in by forces for good. The majority view for centuries has been truth and justice; evil in the minority. It is powerful, but it is controlled. It is forever breaking out as cruelty and violence, in individuals, in homes and in nations, but it is ceaselessly being beaten back, overpowered and subdued again.
This accounts for the brief optimism of many who profess faith in what they call "human goodness." In their blindness they ascribe this overpowering abundance of good to man himself, and reject utterly the biblical revelation that goodness stems from the kindness of God on our behalf. In his consummate darkness man views good as an inherent trait of the human race.
Restraints Removed: Jesus reveals the truth. In the end of the age, he says, it will be different. Then evil will reign in triumphant, malicious glee. All bonds will be broken, restraints will be cast aside, and lawlessness will fill the earth. God will move in judgment, terrible catastrophes will sweep the earth, but still man will not repent. Fear will not drive men to prayer but to further defiance. They will not wish to be delivered but only to be destroyed. They will take no delight in good, but will be made happy but the triumph of evil.
It is easy to document this by three very vivid pictures from the book of Revelation. The larger part of that book traces the course of events in the Great Tribulation. It especially reveals the condition of human hearts during the time of worldwide crisis. The first picture comes from Revelation 9:20, 21:
The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot either see or hear or walk; nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries, or their immorality or their thefts.
The second is from Revelation 6:12-17 and depicts the fear men experience, but the stubbornness they cherish: "When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale; the sky vanished like a scroll that is rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth and the great men and the generals and the rich and the strong, and every one, slave and free, hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, 'Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand before it?'" The third picture, perhaps the most hideous of all, is found in Revelation 11:7-10:
"And when they have finished their testimony, the beast that ascends from the bottomless pit will make war upon them [the two witnesses from God] and conquer them and kill them, and their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city which is allegorically called Sodom and Egypt, where their Lord was crucified. For three days and a half men from the peoples and tribes and tongues and nations gaze at their dead bodies and refuse to let them be placed in a tomb, and those who dwell on the earth will rejoice over them and make merry and exchange presents, because these two prophets had been a torment to those who dwell on the earth."
You can see that these are very different days from those in which we live. They may not be very far removed in time, but they are very far removed in point of character. We are drawing nearer to them all the time, but we have not yet reached the point of such blatant, unblushing and worldwide delight in evil. What will happen to bring this about? Why this terrible difference?
Restraining Forces: To put the question another way: What is it that restrains the enormity of human evil today? What force is it that prevents the grinning ghouls of darkness from beginning their macabre dance of death right now? The clue is found in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5. There Jesus said to the little band of disciples gathered around him-ordinary men, fishermen, tax collectors, farmers-these amazing words: "You are the salt of the earth...You are the light of the world." (vv. 13, 14).
What did he mean? He meant they were light because they had life. John's Gospel says, "In him was life, and the life was the light of men." (John 1:4) Men have light only when they are in touch with the life that comes from Jesus Christ. Here were men, simple men, who possessed life. And because they had life, they had light. They were salt, because they had savor. Jesus spoke of salt which is without savor. It is good for nothing, he said. Men will cast it out and tread it under their feet. But here were men who had savor, a different flavor. The life they possessed, the life of Jesus Christ, made them different. It gave them a different kind of character. It made them a different kind of people. They had a different light on their faces, and a different reason for living. They had a different authority in their lives and a different power than other men.
Because of this, they were salt, arresting corruption. That is the purpose of salt. We use it in meat to stop it from spoiling, to arrest rottenness. So Jesus said they were as salt pervading society, molding human thought, challenging evil, restraining, controlling, limiting, binding, resisting the malignancy of evil in human affairs. It is for this reason that Christians must not isolate themselves from society. They must not attempt to create "Bible Cities," Christian communities set off from the world, away from the flow and stream of life around them. Christians are intended to permeate every level of life. They are salt, but salt is of no value while it remains in the salt shaker!
A Revealed Secret: When Paul wrote to the Thessalonian Christians about the coming of the Lawless One, he said, "You know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time" (2 Thessalonians 2:6). The restraining force was evidently something they knew about themselves. They had only to look into their own lives to see what restrained lawlessness within them. They knew, as we also know, that the "desires of the flesh are against the Spirit" (Galatians 5:17). But they were also discovering that "the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh...to prevent you from doing what you would." The restrainer of evil is the Holy Spirit within the Christian. It is the glorious secret that Paul calls "Christ in you, the hope of glory," the life of Jesus, imparted by the Holy Spirit, acting as a dam against the manifestation of evil.
Again Paul told the Thessalonians: "He who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed." All restraints must be removed before what man is without God can be fully revealed. The salt must be taken out of society to allow the rottenness to be evident. When the restraints are removed man's arrogant pride will soon break out in an assumption of Deity. Then the sirens will moan, the powers of darkness will be set free, the witches of terror will ride through the sky, and the dark night of judgment will begin. "Then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be" (Matthew 24:21).
God's Timetable: When does this removal of the salt of society occur? That is the question that shrieks for an answer now. If we expect to tie it to some specific date on the calendar we are doomed to disappointment. Jesus continually warned against any attempt to set dates. But we can know the time of this removal in relation to other events at the close of the age. Since Paul says plainly that it will be before the Antichrist is revealed--"And then the lawless one will be revealed" (2 Thessalonians 2:8)--we know that this removal occurs somewhere between the events recorded in verse 14 of Matthew 24, and those referred to in verse 15. It will be sometime before the desolating sacrilege spoken of by the prophet Daniel stands in the holy place.
Exactly how long before no one knows. Many Bible scholars feel it will be at least three and a half years before (at the beginning of the seven year period which is Daniel's seventieth week). This would allow some time for the corruption of society, which has been held in restraint by the presence of Christian "salt," to spread and entrench itself, and ultimately produce the worldwide delight in the blasphemies of the Lawless One when he is revealed in the temple. When all references in Scripture to this event are taken into consideration this seems to be the most likely time for the great removal to occur.
How will it take place? By what means is the Holy Spirit taken "out of the way" so that evil is permitted to run rampant? From many Scriptures the answer comes: the church is suddenly taken out of the world! This does not mean the organized, institutional church, as such. It means the true church, consisting of Christians in all denominations (and in no denomination) who possess, through the new birth the indwelling life of Jesus Christ. As we have already seen, it is through such Christians that the Holy Spirit exercises his restraining work in society. So to remove the Christians is to remove the restraints and take the wraps off evil.
To expect such a fantastic event as this would be nothing but extreme religious fanaticism unless the Bible itself teaches that is true. Does Jesus say anything about this? The answer is yes! And right here in the Olivet Discourse too! He does not mention it at the time it occurs chronologically (before verse 15), but late in the message he describes it (verses 36-42), and introduces it with a warning that it cannot be tied to any specific date:
"But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. As were the days of Noah, so will be the coming [parousia, presence] of the Son of man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they did not know until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming [parousia, presence] of the Son of man. Then two men will be in the field; one is taken and one is left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one is taken and one is left. Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming."
Two Phases of His "Presence": When Jesus speaks about his return he is not referring to a single moment of time when he will appear, but his talking about a return that covers a period of time. It will begin with a secret arrival, when he will come like a thief in the night. This will be the beginning of his "presence." But that presence will continue throughout all the time of trouble on earth, but behind the scenes, as it were, invisible to the world. Then, "after the tribulation of those days," he will manifest his presence visibly, appearing in power and great glory.
This invisible presence of Jesus on earth is not something wholly new. During the forty days after his resurrection he was in exactly this condition. He appeared and disappeared among his disciples and they never knew when he was coming or when he would go. He was suddenly there, and just as suddenly gone. He was here, but not here. For forty days this manifestation went on until he ascended into heaven. When he comes again he will resume the same relationship to the believing Jews and Gentiles of that time. The church will be caught up to be with him, to join him in that remarkable presence during the terrible days of trouble on earth.
The Church Removed: The removal of the church is described also in other passages. Paul writes to the Thessalonians about that, too in 1 Thessalonians 4:15-18:
"For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming [parousia] of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep [died]. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel's call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words."
This event is call the departure of the church. An older word for it is the "rapture" of the church. As you will note in what Paul says about it, it is intended to be a source of comfort to Christians. It is called in Titus 2:13 "our blessed hope." It means that one whole generation of Christians will not physically die, but will pass directly into a glorified state, as Jesus did on the Mount of Transfiguration before the astonished eyes of Peter, James and John (Matthew 17:2). No wonder one Christian said, "I'm not waiting for the undertaker; I'm waiting for the uppertaker!"
Don't let your imagination run away with you in trying to conceive what this event will be like. It is highly likely that it will not be visible to the world. It will be unseen and unfelt, with no disturbance of graves and nothing to indicate that anything has happened other than the strange disappearance of thousands. Just as the body of Jesus Christ was raised from the dead and passed out through the tomb in which he had resided without any physical manifestation whatever, so this event will take place. The stone was not rolled away from Jesus' tomb to let him out; it was rolled away to let the disciples in-so they could see what had happened. When Peter came in and found the grave clothes still lying as though wrapped around a body, but with the body absent, he was convinced that something unusual had occurred.
So this will be a silent event, recognizable only by the unexplained disappearance of many. Paul describes it in 1 Corinthians 15:51,52:
"Lo! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed."
The whole point of our Lord's revelation of this fantastic event is, as he puts it, "Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming." Do not be deceived, do not be misled or swept off your feet by the persuasive lies of unbelief in this day. Do not be distracted by the siren sounds of a deceived society which vainly imagines that all will go on forever as it does now. Do not be deterred in your service by the growing power of evil or the dark gloom of deluded men who can switch suddenly from glowing optimism to shuddering despair. The great removal can come at any time. Are you watching?
THAT STRANGE PEOPLE, THE JEWS: Matthew 24:16-20
Perhaps you are now thinking, "If God takes the church out of the world before the great tribulation begins, will no one have a chance to know God during that time?" To answer that perfectly proper question we must return once again to the words of Jesus to his disciples on the Mount of Olives. After he has announced the sign of the close of the age as "the desolating sacrilege spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place," he then adds, in verses 16-20:
"Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains; let him who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house; and let him who is in the field not turn back to take his mantle. And alas for those who are with child and for those who give suck in those days! Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a sabbath."
Who are they who must flee so urgently when the last days begin? Who dare not hesitate long enough even to go back into the house to pick up a wrap, but must immediately head for the hills? There is no need to wonder, for the Lord says plainly, "those who are in Judea." Now Judea is a geographical part of the land of Israel, ancient Palestine. It comprises the hill country surrounding the city of Jerusalem and includes the city as well. It is to the residents of Jerusalem and Judea that this warning is addressed.
Furthermore, the Lord's mention of the Sabbath establishes the fact that these residents of Judea are Jews. He urges them to pray that their flight will not be in the winter, with its distress of cold, or on the Sabbath, with its travel limitations, for Jews are allowed to travel only a short distance on a Sabbath day. Later in this passage these Jews are called "the elect" ("for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened"), and this makes clear they are believing Jews, that is, men and women of faith who know and love Jesus Christ as Lord and are prepared to live or die for him.
They are not Christians in the usual sense of that term, referring to those who are members of the church, for we are told that in the church there is neither Jew nor Gentile, bond nor free. Jews are not to be distinguished from Gentiles within the church. These distinctions, we are precisely told by the apostle Paul, have been invalidated in the church. The "middle wall of partition" has been eliminated; there are no distinctions of background, race or religious training that are recognized within the church of Jesus Christ.
Furthermore, Christians, we are told, are free from the law and no longer observe special days, special feasts, new moons and Sabbaths. In his letter to the Colossians the apostle Paul clearly speaks of the fact that the Sabbaths were included in those shadows which were done away in Christ. But here the Sabbath distinctly will be a restricting factor in the flight of these people. Here then will be a class of people who cannot be identified with the present day church. They will be Jewish believers in Christ who will be converted after the removal of the church and before the time of the Great Tribulation.
A Shout and A Voice of Triumph: Now a problem arises. How do these Jews become believers in Christ, since there are no Christians left to preach the gospel to them after the removal of the church? In the great description that Paul gives of the departure of the church there is a suggestive hint that may help us with this difficulty. He tells the Thessalonians that the Lord Jesus himself will descended from heaven, accompanied by three remarkable sounds. There will be, first, a shout, then the voice of the archangel, and third, the sounding of the trumpet of God. Why these three?
The shout comes from the Lord himself. As he appears to the church he will call with a loud voice. When he stood before the tomb of Lazarus he called with a great voice, "Lazarus! Come forth!" It has often been pointed out if he had not said, "Lazarus," he would have emptied the cemetery! The great shout obviously will be to wake the dead. He had himself said, in John 5:28, "Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice [the voice of the Son of God], and come forth."
The trumpet of God is used throughout Scripture as an assembly call. A trumpet was used in the Roman army to signal the beginning of a march. In the wilderness Moses used it to summon the people of Israel to begin their journey. It is a sound directed toward the living. After the dead in Christ have been awakened by the shout of the Lord, then, Paul says, "We who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air." The trumpet will sound the beginning of that great gathering in the church.
Meet Michael: Then what about the archangel's voice? Scripture refers to only one archangel. His name is Michael. He appears a number of times in the Bible and always in connection with the people of Israel. One of the places where he is mentioned is in the twelfth chapter of Daniel, the same prophet to which Jesus referred concerning the desolating sacrilege. In verse 1 Daniel is told:
"At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people [Daniel's people, the Jews]. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time [unquestionably, the Great Tribulation]; but at that time your people shall be delivered, every one whose name shall be found written in the book."
It is strongly suggested here that Michael, the great archangel, is responsible for opening the eyes of certain Jews living in Judea at the time of the departure of the church, and that they will then recognize the Lord Jesus as their true Messiah and become believers in him.
We may link this passage with one in Revelation chapter 7:2-4, where there is a description of an event that seems to be remarkably similar, if it is not exactly the same. There the apostle John says:
"Then I saw another angel [Here is a great angel who undertakes a special task connected with Israel. He is not called an archangel, though he well might be Michael] ascend from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, saying, 'Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God upon their foreheads.' And I heard the number of the sealed, a hundred and forty-four thousand sealed, out of every tribe of the sons of Israel."
These 144,000 will clearly be Jews, for the passage goes on to list the twelve tribes of Israel and to declare that 12,000 are chosen from each of the tribes. Further information is given us concerning this special group in Revelation 14:1,3-5:
"Then I looked, and lo, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, [Jesus] and with him a hundred and forty-four thousand who had his name and his Father's name written on their foreheads. And they sing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the hundred and forty-four thousand who had been redeemed from the earth. It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are chaste; it is these who follow the Lamb wherever he goes; these have been redeemed from mankind as first fruits for God and the Lamb, and in their mouth no lie was found, for they are spotless."
The same chapter goes on to describe the Great Tribulation as "the hour of his [God's] judgment." Before that hour arrives, these 144,000 from the tribes of Israel will be seen with the Lamb on Mount Zion. This is a specific location within the city limits of Jerusalem. This account confirms the fact that Jesus Christ will be on earth during this time, and will reveal himself from time to time these Jewish disciples, just as he appeared from time to time to his followers during those remarkable forty days following his resurrection.
Evidently these 144,000 Jews are to be turned from unbelief to belief much in the same dramatic way as was the apostle Paul. He was converted on the road to Damascus by the sudden appearance of the risen Lord Jesus Christ. Paul speaks of himself, in 1 Corinthians 15, as "one untimely born," very likely thinking of himself as properly belonging to this special band of Jewish believers, but who, by the grace of God, was born ahead of time and given the privilege of belonging to the church.
Israel Revisited: Since these 144,000 Jews are in frequent touch with the risen Lord they will be like so many Pauls, proclaiming the eternal gospel in mighty Spirit-given power throughout the whole earth. During this time the Lawless One will be moving to consolidate his power and to present himself to the world as God. This appearance of Christ to the 144,000 is the beginning of the fulfillment of God's renewed activity with the Jews, long predicted by the Old Testament prophets. Paul also specifically says that despite the centuries of wandering following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, God will not cast off his people. He will call them back again and renew a relationship with them.
In Romans 11 Paul warns that we Gentiles must never assume that God has totally and irrevocably set aside the nation of Israel, for all the promises which he has made to them in the past will be fulfilled. Because of unbelief, Paul says, God scattered them around the earth and opened the door of blessing to all the nations of earth, without distinction. But the Gentiles, too, will fail God as did the Jews, and then they will be set aside and God will call Israel back into national blessing. That is the work he will begin with the calling of the 144,000. Will anyone believe the message these 144,000 proclaim? If they do, of course, it will probably be at the risk of their lives, since the Lawless One will soon be in full control. The answer to that question is given by the apostle John in Revelation 7:9,10,13,14:
"After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no man could number, form every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, 'Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!' Then one of the elders addressed me saying, 'Who are these, clothed in white robes, and whence have they come?' I said to him, 'Sir, you know.' And he said to me, 'These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.'"
This great multitude of Gentiles will be converted at the eleventh hour of history, evidently by believing the gospel preached by the 144,000 of Israel sent by the Son of God. Probably the greater part of this multitude will be martyred for their faith. In other parts of Revelation we are told that many will be put to death because they will not worship the Beast (the Antichrist) or his image.
Though they will indeed be "a great multitude" as John said, yet it is immediately evident that they will be different in one most remarkable way from the present day church. Apparently they will not exercise the ministry of salt. They will have no softening or restraining effect upon the people around them nor on the society in which they will live. They will be the light of the world, of that day, exposing and thus condemning what goes on, but they will not be as salt as Christians are today, preventing corruption, restraining evil, resisting the work of injustice in society. They will live as individuals, facing, at the risk of their lives, a society dedicated completely to powerful delusion.
As a consequence of the fact that there will be no salt at work in society, the dark menace of human arrogance and pride grows darker still. Doubtless a mad science, like the Sorcerer's Apprentice, will go blithely on, mixing evil potions and conjuring up still more fearful forces of uncontrollable, murderous power. It is already evident that man is convinced that he can make anything he likes. He can control the weather (he thinks); he can build machines that can do his thinking; he can produce test-tube babies. He has even devised a science, called biometrics, which proposes to remake man himself. The obsolete apparatus of human organization made by the Creator must be modernized. Man must be biologically rebred.
It is not only the Marxists who think man needs remaking, but also the scientists of the West who propose to turn man from a human being with an unpredictable will and an unmanageable conscience into a robot or a marionette, a compliant human vegetable. The result of these trends is completely predictable. Without realizing it, and certainly without desiring it, man in his incredible blindness has already begun to tip the delicate balance of life. Like a drunk in a canoe, he has thrown his weight around with gay abandon and, perverted by his drunken joy, he cannot see how much water has already been shipped, and that one more violent lurch is sufficient to take him to the bottom.
The apostle Peter tells us that once before in the history of the world this has happened. There was a time when man, in arrogance and price, boasting of the civilization which he had built, quite unwittingly tripped the lever which held the world of his day in delicate balance. Before he knew what had happened, the clouds began to gather, the sky to darken, the heavens poured down floods of water, the earth heaved, the seas raised and swept across the mountain tops in monstrous waves, and all the world of man perished, except for eight souls who were safely preserved in an ark.
Once again, Jesus suggests, man in his clever insanity will go too far. The sign of it will be a world gone mad with self conceit, permitting and even encouraging its leaders to state publicly what almost everyone secretly believes: that there is no real God, that man is his own god and he does not need any other. Then the deadly lever will be tripped by man's own hand, the dark forces of nature will be released, the seals of nuclear power will be removed, the trumpets of human cruelty will sound out, and the vials of a demented biology will be poured out upon the earth. It is all described in detail in the book of Revelation.
Light in Darkness: About now you may be saying: "This is a terrible outlook; is there any gleam of comfort that shines through these dark clouds?" Yes, there are three things that can encourage us as we face the full implications of this remarkable word from Jesus.
First, the midnight hour has not yet arrived. Perhaps we ought to shout with gladness about that. We may be near, very near, but the hour of God's grace has not yet run its course. This is not an attempt to frighten anyone into faith, but simply a realistic facing of what Jesus Christ has said. He came into the world not to condemn it but to save. He is not interested in beating men over the head with an eschatological whip, but he does want them to see life as it is, and themselves as they are: helpless without him, in the midst of powerful forces that can sweep them to inevitable destruction.
So fantastically accurate is this long range prediction of the Lord's, and so compelling in line with the trend of present events and attitudes, that it becomes a powerful weapon to awaken many from the dream of death in which they are engaged. There are certain questions it forces upon us: Are we spending all our waking hours living for something that is to be swept away in the rush of nuclear destruction. Or, are we living in a relationship of faith in which the Lord Jesus is living his life again in us? It is either one or the other.
The second note of encouragement is that, as always in Scripture, God's dealings with Israel are also a picture of his work with any believer. As a nation, Israel has long lived in unbelief toward Lord Jesus Christ. They have been wandering in obscurity and persecution for many centuries. Any Christian knows that there are also times of unbelief in his own life. Though he is a believer, yet he can be at times a very unbelieving believer. The result of those times of unbelief is invariably one of scattering and wandering, of darkness and distance from God. But how beautifully this account of the 144,000 shows how God can break through unbelief. He can bring the light of a new glimpse of Jesus streaming through the darkness just when you need it most. Perhaps you may be going through such a crisis experience where God is about to bring new light into your heart, and you will no longer walk in barrenness and darkness but in light, glory and peace. The key to such deliverance is to accept the darkness as form him, as well as the light. When we can thank him for the darkness then the light is not far away. That is what will eventually happen to Israel, and it is what God is waiting to bring about for us now.
The Sovereign God--in control: The final strengthening word is that it is all happening on schedule, according to plan. It has all been anticipated and predicted. Perhaps the most comforting word the Lord Jesus ever spoke to his disciples is found in John 14:1,2: "Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house [the universe] are many rooms [places to live, earth is one but there are also others]; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?" There is the comforting word. He came to set the record straight, to correct any misapprehensions. He came to outline what will happen and to set the truth before us.
It is tremendously helpful to realize that the present world events and those yet to take place are no surprise to God. Even the time of tribulation is fully known, and will not be the end of the story. Beyond the darkness lies the dawn of a new day for this weary, battered earth. Faith can lift up its eyes and strengthen its heart and rejoice that God has everything in control.
RUSSIA, RELIGION, AND RUIN: Matthew 7:21-23; Revelation 17:1-6
Are you having difficulty in accepting some of these predicted events as true? Or do you perhaps accept them without difficulty, but yet wonder what your friends would think if you told them you believe all this? There are some who cannot tolerate detailed prediction in Scripture. They are quite content to hear prophecy as long as it deals in sweeping generalities and ambiguous figures which may be full of sound and fury, but, to them, signifies nothing. But when Scripture becomes specific and detailed, as it frequently does, they feel distressed and want to retreat to firmer ground-perhaps to the Sermon on the Mount or to some of the Lord's less explosive parables.
To talk of a Second Coming or of The Great Tribulation is, to them, almost as though you were describing an experience with little men from a flying saucer! They view the book of Revelation as a kind of eschatological Disneyland, quite unrelated to the world of space and time with which they are so familiar, or think they are. Instead of giving to prophetic Scripture the careful, thoughtful study it deserves, they throw up their hands in confusion and turn on Alfred Hitchcock or pick up a who-dunit and try to unravel that mystery instead. Yet it seems obvious that Jesus speaks as freely about the abomination of desolation as he does of forgiveness or love. Certainly he regards the prophecies of the Old Testament in the most literal terms, adding his own predictions to them in simple, unambiguous language. He gives no hint whatever that prophecy in the future will be fulfilled in the past, that is, simply and literally, in exact accord with what has been predicted.
Two Powers---Political and Religious: In this chapter we will meet two forces which will be at work during the close of the age, but which are not specifically mentioned by Jesus in the Olivet Discourse. He attempts to give only a general outline of the events of that time, and we must look to other predictive Scriptures to give us the details. Jesus indicates that the Lawless One will be exercising worldwide power at the time of the Great Tribulation, but there is no specific mention of two other powers which are present during part of that time and which must be removed before the Antichrist reigns unopposed. One is a political power and the other religious.
The political power is Russia and her satellite nations. The religious rival is the false Church which is left behind when the true church is removed. Already these forces are at work in today's world and form part of "mystery of lawlessness" which has been continually growing since the first century. At present there is much good intermingled with the bad but when the restraints are removed the bad will quickly become much worse. Dr. Charles Malik, formerly President of the General Assembly of the United Nations, was once asked some, "What can Christians learn from the meteoric rise of world Communism in little more than forty years?" His answer was:
"The most important thing to learn is that we are still living as the Germans say 'zwischen den zeiten' (between the times) when demonic forces can quickly soar very high and can take possession of the world in very short order. If it isn't Communism it will be something else: this battle between Christ and the devil is an eternal thing until Christ comes again. Christians cannot watch too closely. Christ told us to watch day and night. We don't know when he is coming again. The greatest lesson we can learn is that there is no security between the times, no security whatever."
The Bible deals with the downfall of Russia in very short order. When you consider the amount of space that Scripture gives to what is truly important in God's sight, it is remarkable that the threat to the world and to God's cause from atheistic Russia is dealt with so briefly. The story is contained largely in two chapters in the Book of Ezekiel, chapters 38 and 39. These are supplemented by passages in Daniel 11, Joel 2 and Isaiah 10. Read these at your leisure for they help fill in the story of the great power of the north, Russia and her satellites. The prophet Ezekiel, in 38:1,2 identifies a great power which is coming from the north against the land of Israel. These are his words:
"The word of the LORD came to me: 'Son of man, set your face toward Gog, of the land of Magog, the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal, and prophesy against him."
The land of Magog, which is mentioned also in Genesis 10, is a general term for an undefined area centering around the Caspian Sea. But the term "chief prince" is even more specific. In Hebrew it is actually "the prince of Rosh" and there is much evidence that the name Russia is derived from that word, Rosh. Scholars also identify Meshech and Tubal with the ancient capitals of Russia and Siberia, namely Moscow and Tobolsk. Through Ezekiel, in verses 8,9, God delivers the following message to the prince of Rosh:
"After many days you will be mustered; in the latter years you will go against the land that is restored from war, the land where people were gathered from many nations upon the mountains of Israel, which had been a continual waste. You will advance, coming on like a storm, you will be like a cloud covering the land, you and all your hordes, and many peoples with you."
It would be fascinating to trace through in detail the full revelation of Scripture concerning this coming invasion of Israel. We learn from the prophet Joel that Jerusalem will be taken and Zechariah, in his 14th chapter, gives us the details of this. Daniel adds the fact that the northern army will sweep down into Egypt and North Africa and there, having conquered these areas, the commander (Daniel calls him the "king of the north") will hear tidings out of the east and north that will trouble him and he will return into the land of Israel. There on the mountains of Judea, the very same mountains where Jesus and his disciples walked, he is to be overwhelmed and destroyed. Ezekiel 38:22, 23.
"With pestilence and bloodshed I will enter into judgment with him; and I will rain upon him and his hordes and the many peoples that are with him, torrential rains and hailstones, fire and brimstone. So I will show my greatness and my holiness and make myself known in the eyes of many nations. Then they will know that I am the LORD."
It is apparent from the description that God himself will assume the prerogative of dealing with the Russian threat. Whether it will involve nuclear warfare, or be purely a natural disaster, is difficult to determine. At any rate it is quite clear that the earth will never be governed from Moscow. The general consensus of biblical scholars would date this destruction of Russia some time during the first half of Daniel's seventieth week, and before the onset of the Great Tribulation.
Religious Babylon: The one roadblock to power that will remain before the Lawless One can completely have his way with the world will be the towering religious monolith which is left in control of religious affairs after the true church has been removed. The apostle John gives us a symbolic picture of this church in Revelation 17:
"Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, 'Come, I will show you the judgment of the great harlot who is seated upon many waters, with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and with the wine of whose fornication the dwellers on earth have drunk.' And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness, and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast which was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and bedecked with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her had a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication; and on her forehead was written a name of mystery: 'Babylon the great, mother of harlots and of earth's abominations.' And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus."
The ten-horned beast which this woman is seen riding is a symbolic description of the Lawless One who is the head of the political hierarchy of the western world. The woman here is the false church and she is seen riding the beast, that is, in some sense exercising control over the Lawless One.
The name of this woman is "Mystery Babylon the Great." It indicates that false Christianity is in some way linked with the ancient city Babylon. Since Babylon is the city that grew up around the tower of Babel, as described in Genesis 11, we have in that story a strong hint of what the error of Babylonianism is. The tower of Babel was the earliest attempt of man to gain power and prestige by the exercise of religious authority. Thus there originated in the great city by the Euphrates a false religion which masqueraded as the true one and throughout all history has been infiltrating all religious systems to deceive and delude men. Its characteristics have always been the same: love of power and prestige, obtained by exercising religious authority.
Babylonianism is not confined to any one group or ecclesiastical organization today. Like the true church, the false is scattered everywhere, permeating everything. But there is this difference: the true church is an organism, a living body, made up of members who share the same life, the life of Jesus. The false church is an organization and therefore lays much stress on external membership. Wherever you find those who bow to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and love and obey him, there you have the true church. Wherever you find those who, though outwardly religious, love self and hunger after status, prestige, and the world's acclaim, there you have the false church, Babylon the Great.
It is obvious that ecclesiastical merger is the spirit of the day. Almost monthly we read of some new merger of churches or religious organizations. It appears as though the church has been infected with the Rotary Club spirit, for Rotarians love to sing, "The more we get together the happier we'll be." Despite this external merging and blending of organizations it will be impossible to separate the true church from the false until God himself will remove the true and leave the false.
Many Christians are asking, "What shall we do about this growing octopus of churches? Should we withdraw and form our own separate, purified group, where unbelief is excluded and only true Christians are admitted?" That is utterly impossible. Jesus said specifically, "Let [the wheat and the tares] grow together until the harvest." The World Council of Churches, the Roman Catholic Church, the various independent bodies, all have genuine Christians in their membership, as well as those who are Babylonians at heart. No man, or group of men, possesses the wisdom to distinguish between the true and the false. Until God makes this distinction it is necessary for each individual to judge his own heart.
Marks of Counterfeit Christianity: But can you know which side you are on? Yes! The Bible indicates that there are certain attitudes which clearly mark a false Christian. Let's take a look at three incisive passages that will unveil the mark of the counterfeit. The first is from Philippians 3:18, 19:
"For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things."
One clear mark of the false is a set of wrong values. The most important thing in life to anyone is what he regards as his god. Here in this verse the god is the belly. These people are not concerned about the work of the Lord, the extension of the "good news," or meeting the needs of heart-sick, hungry, or deluded people. To them the most important issues are, "What shall I eat, what shall I drink, and with what shall I be clothed." Their glory is their shame. They glory in what really ought to be the source of shame, like a man boasting that he has bad breath. "Hallelujah, I've got halitosis!" They should be ashamed of their pride, their prejudices, and their pettiness, but instead they boast of these things and even claim they are "Christian" attitudes.
Also, they mind "earthly things." They have no vision beyond what can be seen. The earthly things are not wrong but they are not enough. The ultimate decisions of life are not to be based on immediate issues-making money, gaining or losing status, pleasing others-but on the absolute values which God declares. Jesus said "Seek first his [God's] kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well." But those who mind earthly things are always ready to forget the Lord's words when material values are at stake. Another passage that marks a counterfeit Christian is Matthew 7:21-23:
"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do mighty works in your name?' And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you evil-doers.'"
These are people characterized by a false sense of ministry. They are certain what they have done will win commendation from Christ, but they are terribly mistaken. What they have done seems quite worthy: teaching, healing, and helping. "Did we not prophesy in your name?" That is the ministry of teaching and it is apparently Christian teaching, for it is done in the name of Christ. "Did we not...cast out demons?" That is the ministry of healing, of counseling and delivering from oppressive powers. "Did we not...do many mighty works?" It includes such deeds as establishing schools, building hospitals, lifting literary standards and many other activities which the world would recognize as "mighty works."
But there is one thing wrong. It is all accomplished for the sake of self. It is an attempt to gain prestige and favor by doing religious things; therefore it is Babylonianism. There has been no new beginning, no new birth in Jesus Christ. It is perfectly sincere, deeply earnest, even completely dedicated, but it is all directed at the deadly magnifying of self which God completely set aside. One additional passage from the lips of Jesus completes the trilogy of the counterfeit. This one is found in Revelation 3:15-17:
"I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked."
This group suffers from a false sense of power. They think they are Christians and call themselves Christians. They even see themselves as an especially powerful church and they reckon their power from three apparent sources. The first of these is wealth. "Money talks," they say. "Money is power." But money cannot change hearts, or break evil habits, or open deluded eyes. Because they rely on money these people can never do anything more than the nearest bank or government agency can do.
Furthermore, they say, "I have prospered;" that is, increased in numbers. Is this not the standard for measuring power in many places today? "We have the largest church in town." "Our congregation is made up of the finest people and all the top leaders come." "With the votes we can sway we can do almost anything." One hears this kind of talk on every side today, but it is all a delusion of power.
As a third source of power they demonstrate a tremendous sense of confidence. "We have need of nothing," they say. "We have all that it takes to do whatever needs to be done." That is the spirit of Babylonianism. In the face of this remarkable esprit de corps Jesus says, "[You do not know] that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked." The ultimate fate of this false church is revealed to us by John in Revelation 17:15-17:
"And he said to me, 'The waters that you saw, where the harlot is seated, are the peoples and multitudes and nations and tongues. And the ten horns that you saw, they and the beast will hate the harlot; they will make her desolate and naked, and devour her flesh and burn her up with fire, for God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by being of one mind and giving over their royal power to the beast, until the words of God shall be fulfilled.'"
Shorn of its real power by the removal of the true Christians, the whole ecclesiastical structure becomes nothing but a hollow mockery. Though it still attempts to ride the beast, and thus to continue the moral control and political influence it has always exercised, yet this soon becomes no longer possible. Morality without faith is empty and vain and it cannot long survive for it has no power. When the hypocrisy of this false church becomes no longer concealable the nations will turn on it like wild pigs and rend the whole hypocritical structure to the ground.
There was an historical foreview of this in the days of the French Revolution. Then during the revolt against religion, cathedrals were torn down or turned into market places, altars were violated, prostitutes were invested as priests, and religious teachings were held up to scorn. So also the nations will hate the harlot and make her desolate and naked, devouring her flesh and burning her with fire. Then the Lawless One will be free to carry out his cruel will upon all the peoples of earth.
If in searching your own heart you find continual manifestation of self-centeredness, of concern for yourself and lack of concern for others, of bitterness or resentment all these mark the path of unbelief. Though you may have received the Lord Jesus into your heart, you are not yet living the life he came to give you. Ask him to deal with the pride and love of position within you and to make your heart flame with his life, love, grace, glory and joy. If life is dull and meaningless to you, uncertain and filled with darkness, then somewhere you've failed to take what he came to give.
He did not come to give you darkness, dullness and drabness. He came to give life-abundant life; the kind that he himself lived in the days of his flesh. If he has entered your heart then expect him to live that kind of life in you, for that is what the Christian life is: all of him being all that he is, in you! Nothing less than this is true Christianity.
From http://pbc.org/dp/stedman/olivet/. The PBC bookstore carries this series in book form as "What on Earth is Happening."
Class notes and audio files are here: http://ldolphin.org/cleanpages/
December 3, 2004.