What to expect until Christ returns

[A talk given at Grace Church Haywards Heath on 7 May 2017 with extended notes and Bible references added]

Read Matthew 24v1-34

Being a cub scout
When facing a difficult challenge, different personalities tend to lean towards one of two ways in preparing. Some bury their heads in the sand. So, GCSE’s are on the way. But they act as if they’re not really going to happen. And of course, when they inevitably come around, the head in the sand group feel just a little panicky.

The other group live by the cub scout motto “be prepared.” Their revision timetable was put together with colour coding and minute detail six months ago. They’ve been doing test papers for weeks, and have their shiny new pencil case and readily sharpened pencils at the ready.

Well with regard to future history, Christ’s return, final judgment and what lies beyond, Jesus would have us be cub scouts rather than head buriers. And so he has given us much in scripture to enable us to be ready for what comes. And that’s why we’re studying these subjects this month.

But as we do, we do need to come cautiously. You see in his wisdom Jesus has revealed some of these things in a slightly hidden way. No doubt this is to keep us on our toes – aware the things he teaches could take place at any time, and using our imaginations to think on how wonderful they might be.

A question and an answer
Today we’re considering future history. What exactly can we expect between today and the day Christ comes back?

That’s the question the disciples ask to begin our passage. Jesus has just told them their temple will one day be destroyed. Look at their response – verse 3.

In my view Jesus answers them in three stages: First, in verses 4-14 he teaches what will take place throughout history. His focus is on the generation of the disciples themselves, referring to them as “you” throughout (see also v34). However he is looking beyond that generation too. What they experience will be “the beginning of birth-pains” (v8) implying these things will continue until this world order gives birth to the next at his return (see Rom 8v18-23). The “you” therefore becomes representative of the experience of all disciples who are encouraged to stand firm until “the end.”

Now some argue that “the end” in mind here is the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70 for its rejection of the Messiah. Certainly Jesus has that in mind in Matthew 23v35-39 and, as we will see from verse 15 of this chapter. However, the “coming” of the Son of Man in verses 27-30 must refer to his return in judgment marking this as “the end” in mind. Four key arguments support this: (1) Throughout Matthew “the end” refers to the time of final judgment when angels gather God’s people to him as in v31 (13v39-40, 49, 28v20). (2) Verses 27 and 30 stress the Son of Man will be visible to all. This is not a coming in the metaphorical sense of sending judgment by causing Rome to sack Jerusalem. (3) Verses 36-44 liken this coming to the coming of the flood, teaching that it will be a universal not local judgment, and that it won’t be on everyone, but separate believers from unbelievers. (4) Jesus says it will be unexpected, coming like a thief in the night (v42-43). But in v15-28 he explicitly states what will signal that the destruction of Jerusalem is about to take place. So it cannot be “the end” he has in mind.

Second, verses 15-28 do then deal with AD70. How Jerusalem would be destroyed. Jesus point is that his disciples should not wait around thinking he will return then and save them as passages like Zechariah 14 imply. Instead they should run for the hills (v16). The implication is that these prophetic texts refer not to AD70, but to a future hostility to God’s people that they will be delivered from at Christ’s return (see Rev 20v7-10 and the talk “what to expect at Christ’s return). Nevertheless, AD70 is significant in marking the most significant step towards that day. Ending the era of Jewish exclusivity in God’s purposes, it begins the time of the Gentiles in which the gospel is going to go to the nations (v14, and Luke 21v24).

Third, verses 29-31 then deal with what will take place at the end of history - which could be at any time after that. At that point we’ll dip into the book of Revelation and learn some of the things it teaches will happen just before the end. For now we should note that some argue the “coming” in verse 30 is not the return of Christ as it is in verse 27, but the ascension of Christ into heaven as it is for the Son of Man in Daniel 7v13. They note the greek words translated “coming” in the two verses are different. Against this view we should consider: (1) We are told he will return just as he went (Acts 1v11) so the imagery from Daniel 7 should not be presumed to refer to the ascension. (2) We have already seen that in his flow of thought Jesus has his return in judgment in mind. (3) The two greek words for “coming” are used interchangeably in verses 36-44 for the return of Christ in judgment – one refers to his arrival, the other to the manner of his arriving. (4) Christ’s arrival was not visible to anyone but those in heaven, yet Jesus says his “coming” will be seen by those on earth (v30).

What can we expect throughout history?
We can now try to answer this question. Jesus points out four things in verses 4-14 – and gives us an exhortation with each so that we know what this should mean for us.

(1) Religious deception (v4-5).
You may have heard the term “anti-Christ.” That’s the sense here. It describes any who falsely claim to be God’s Messiah – or undermine the truth about him.

Take a look at verse 24. Jesus says such people will even perform “great signs and wonders.” Well, most religions lay claim to miracles to support them. Christian cults can do too.

But the spirit of anti-Christ is at work outside of religions too. It is seen in the rationalism of our age that denies God or the deity of Christ, and teaches its own mythology – that the human race is the saviour, and will one day bring about a perfect renewed world.

What is Jesus word then to us here? Verse 4: “Watch out.”

We need to learn discernment. We mustn’t assume that because a teacher within the church can heal or claims to follow Christ, that they are trustworthy. We must sieve all we hear by scripture.

(2) Disastrous events (v6-7).
Wars, rumours of wars, famines, earthquakes. Luke includes diseases. I don’t need to spell out these things in our own day. The media make us more aware of them than people have ever been before.

And they can be very unsettling can’t they? A number of people have said in recent years that they feel the devil is winning. We wonder whether God is in control. We worry about what this might mean for us and our children. But what does Jesus say?

Can you see, verse 6? We need not be alarmed. These things are not a surprise to Jesus. No, they “must” happen. In fact, in Revelation 6v1-8 all the events of verses 4-14 happen because Jesus – the Lamb, opens the seals of a scroll that details the events of the end of history. In other words, these things will happen until then by his will and purpose. Indeed, they are called out by his angels (Rev 6v1).

Why? Well there may be some sense of the battle between the kingdoms of light and darkness stirring up the whole creation. But Revelation hints at three key reasons why these things must be: First, because sin is serious. They are preliminary judgments on our race for its rejection of God. Two, because people need shaking. They are a merciful means of God waking people up to their need of him – although Revelation 9v20 tells us most will not turn from their sin even when these things intensify. Third, they must come because they enable believers to shine. The sense is that just as Jesus’ glory was shown by his endurance despite hardship, so his disciples must follow his way. And as we keep going despite these things, the genuineness of our faith is seen – to God’s credit. Revelation 7 describes how all believers are “sealed” as belonging to God so that they are kept safe from these things in the sense that they persevere in faith and so through death pass to heaven.

The point for us is that we shouldn’t be surprised when such things happen. They don’t necessarily mean Jesus is about to arrive. In verse 6, he says “the end is still to come.” These are simply “the beginning of birth pains” (v8).

Time to pause and think about giving birth. Labour is hard. Painful. Even excruciating. But you know what could happen if you go straight to hospital as soon as they start: “Sorry, you are only 1 centimetre dilated. You’ve got a long way still to go.” And so you go home again, bracing yourself for the long haul.

That’s the sense here. These things don’t necessarily mean the new creation is about to come to birth. It may still be some time. But we can endure these hardships nevertheless, because we know they will end. We know something of the joy the trials of history will give birth to.

(3) Christian compromise (v9-12).
Verse 9 speaks of persecution. Disciples will be hated because of Jesus. But it doesn’t end there. Look at the result in verses 10-12.

We’ve had it easy in the UK for the last 500 years. But make no mistake. Persecution is the norm for Christians. That’s why so much of the New Testament deals with it. And we need to prepare ourselves as we see it heading our way in the UK.

And do consider the detail here. It is the religious deception, v12, that leads to an “increase of wickedness” within society, that leads to the love of most who follow Christ “growing cold.” No doubt this described a particular falling away in the first century, but when these labour pains intensify we can expect the same in other periods of history too.

We should not be surprised as the Christian worldview is rejected in our own society, that wickedness is on the increase. Nor should we be surprised at the compromise this brings from those within the church. It’s the parable of the sower: Some shoots wither because of trouble and persecution. Others are choked by the things of life and enticement of wealth (Matt 13v1-23).

And what is Jesus’ word to us - verse 13? “The one who stands firm to the end will be saved.”

If you feel your love is growing cold. Repent of it. Ask God to revive you. Determine to stick with Jesus. Stand firm.

(4) Worldwide witness (v14).
This is the only reason Jesus gives for the delay. He has more people to be born, hear the gospel and believe. He taught that the kingdom of heaven is like a small mustard seed that grows to become a big tree in which bird can make their nests. It’s like yeast being worked through dough (Matt 13v31-33). The sense is that before the end the church will fill the earth with people from all nations sheltering in it. And no doubt at times it will therefore have quite an influence on those nations. But unlike some, I don’t see Jesus teaching us to expect a sort of golden age in which a large part of the world is Christianized before the end (see the discussion of the millennium in “what to expect when Christ returns”). Rather he teaches the kingdom will always be hindered by weeds (Matt 13v24-30).

Jesus doesn’t give a word of exhortation here. It comes later when he urges the disciples to prove faithful servants. We are to keep speaking – keep witnessing – no matter how hard things become (24v45).

I’ve always been stunned by the folly of the trenches in the first world war. I’ve often wondered what would motivate the soldiers at the whistle, to charge out of the trench into machine gun fire knowing it would almost certainly mean their death.

I guess they had little choice. But the noblest amongst them did it for king and country. They saw something bigger than them. They did it because they loved their sovereign and they knew that by this means the war would end more quickly and peace be established.

Well so it is with our witnessing. We speak of Christ even if it brings hostility because we love him. We want to honour him. And we know that this is his means of bringing an end to the tribulations of history and bringing in the new world.

But…We’re not quite done for today. Back to the image of labour pains I’m afraid. The thing about labour pains, is that near the end things up a gear. You experience the same labour pains – but more frequent and more intense.

What to expect at the end of history
Of the final stage one Mum wrote online: “You think you know pain? Its a whole other level. Contractions are a walk in the park in comparison.”

Well, verse 12 seems to hint at this. It implies a stage when wickedness will particularly increase and the love of most Christians will grow cold. The increased severity is also pictured in the dramatic language of verse 29 that is said to “immediately” follow the distress of AD70.

Such language is used figuratively in the Old Testament to denote the destruction of cities and kingdoms. Signifying an awesome act of God, the sense is that these means of God’s blessing in providing light are removed for the peoples involved as they are no more. In modern parlance, their “lights went out.” Luke 21v24-25 imply the language refers to events after the times of the Gentiles dominate Jerusalem and just before Christ’s return.

Most likely the “immediately” is therefore a prophetic term akin to the “soon” of Revelation 22v7, 12 and 20. This fits the change to visionary language and the references to Daniel. If so, it would simply be saying that Jerusalem’s destruction inaugurates the final period of human history known as the time of the Gentiles that leads up to the return of Christ. From that point on then, he could return at any time, and to stress this the entire church age is telescoped together as if one moment.

Verses 32-33 support this understanding. The point is that as the signs of summer are being seen on the tree we know summer is “near.” In context the “near” must be equivalent to the word “immediately.” “All these things” (v33) are therefore the things that come before the end – ie. those of verses 4-28, but particularly as seen during the lifetime of the apostles. That’s why Jesus could say that every one of those things would happen in his generation. The things that will mark the entire church age (v4-14) had all been experienced within a few decades, as had the destruction of Jerusalem (v15-28). From that generation on then, the summer of Christ’s return (v29-31) is to be understood to be “near” or arriving “immediately.” With the image of the thief, we must recognize he could come at any time, being “right at the door” (v33).

But what exactly can we expect around this time? Here we must venture into the book of Revelation. Can I say my reflections are tentative? Interpretations of the book vary so widely none should be too dogmatic about their conclusions. However, my conviction is that the book is not intended to chart various events throughout history that can pinpointed. The numerous websites telling us how the events of today fulfil its specifics are, I think, potentially harmful and certainly distracting. Instead, it seems to me that Revelation tells us the general things to expect throughout history and especially at the end. 

(1) Religious deception: My understanding of the book is that Satan is kept from deceiving the nations now so that people are converted (see the discussion of the millennium in “what to expect when Christ returns”). But we’re told that just before the end he will be unleashed (Rev 20v1-7).

That will lead to the rise of a supreme anti-Christ character (“the beast”) in the image of Satan (“the dragon”), just as Christ is the image of God. He will somehow rule over the world and its leaders and, with Satan, receive its worship, with a key individual reigning with him and promoting his deception (“the second beast”) like the church does the gospel (Rev 13).

This will cause a great increase in sin fuelled by a corrupt, immoral and materialistic empire or world order figuratively described as Babylon, which contrasts the society of the church – described as the new Jerusalem. Babylon is patterned on Rome as the first century centre of idolatry and depravity, but most likely refers to all ungodly society throughout history culminating in a final unified society that spans the earth and is hostile to God’s people (Rev 17-19).

If we think this sounds a bit far fetched it is worth reflecting that had Hitler and Stalin united, something close to this would have happened in the 20th century. And this testifies that it need only take a couple of decades for these sort of things to become a reality. The New Testament presents the return of Christ as only ever one generation away.

(2) Disastrous events: We are told that God will however cause this wicked system to collapse and be destroyed, perhaps with literal environmental judgements like those sent upon Egypt. This destruction is detailed in Revelation 19 but may also be the subject of the trumpet judgments in Revelation 8-9. They seem to be in response to the persecution of God’s people through the church age, and more intense than the events of chapter 6. This would make them precursors to the return of Christ on the opening of the seventh seal (8v1-6) rather than, as some think, another way of describing the judgments spanning the church age.

(3) Christian compromise: It is in this context that this evil ruler will gather the nations against God’s people – possibly coming from the north and with a focus on the actual city of Jerusalem, which may have become prominent after a large conversion of Jews (described in 19v1-21 and again in 20v7-9). And the world’s hostility will leave the church essentially dead in its witness (Rev 11v7-10). The love of most will have grown cold (as 2 Tim 3v1-9).

2 Thessalonians 2v4-8 describes this evil ruler as “the man of lawlessness” noting that he will "set himself up within God's temple." This seems a final fulfillment of “the abomination that causes desolation” first fulfilled by Antiochus Epiphanes in 167 BC (as foreseen in Dan 11v31) and then the Roman armies in AD 70 (as predicted in Matthew 24v15, fulfilling Dan 9v27). The difference is that now God’s “temple” is the church (Eph 2v19-22). This implies the anti-Christ may try to force Christians to worship him, which may in turn mean that great deception and apostasy may find something of a foothold within the church. 

(4) Worldwide mission: The sense may be that the nations will be especially provoked because the church will testify that the destruction of the Babylonian world order is a judgment. And it’s quite possible that in this context a number may come to Christ because of what they witness (Rev 18v9-20). Whether or not there will be a large conversion by the Jewish community just before he returns is debated. But it is suggested in Zechariah 12v10-14 in the context of God coming to deliver his people when their oppressors besiege Jerusalem. Indeed, Matthew 24v29-30 can be translated “the people of the land” which would mean Jesus is directly referring to Zechariah 12. Romans 11v25-32 also suggests a mass turning to Christ by the Jews: (1) by the suggestion that when the full number of Gentiles have been converted, Israel’s hardening to the gospel will cease; (2) by the promise that when Jesus comes from “Zion” (which could be the new Jerusalem in heaven) he will turn godlessness away from the Jews; (3) by the declaration that God’s love for Israel endures even whilst they are his enemies; and (4) by the way Paul patterns Israel receiving mercy on the chronology of a period of Gentile disobedience being followed by their receiving mercy.

And so the end
It is then, in response to the final persecution of his people, that we are told that Christ will return, raising the dead and destroying all who have stood against him (20v7-15). But that is out topic in “what to expect when Christ returns.”

For now, if it is spring, take a look out of the window and see if you can spot a budding branch. It speaks of summer being close. And returning to Matthew 24v32-35, Jesus makes just that point. The things he outlined to his disciples – things that can be seen in every generation, are buds signalling that our everlasting summer is near. When we see them, we are therefore to look up expectantly. We are intended to get a little excited – to wonder “could this be it,” and then ask ourselves “am I really ready.”

The fact is, all the things Jesus notes have intensified in the last hundred years or so. False religion and Christian cults have multiplied. Environmental disasters have become more severe. Persecution has become much more widespread, accompanied by a rapid turning from the faith in historically Christianized countries; and the gospel has gone to the world, making huge advances in Africa and Asia, with reports of an unprecedented acceptance amongst Jews too. Of course it is quite possible this is just a momentary intensification of labour pains, with birth still a long way off. But it’s also possible that it’s the start of the main event. Whatever the case, it should cause us to look up and know that summer is nearer than it has ever been.