Dear Radio Friends,
Please read Matthew 24:1-8.
We are interested today, especially in that last verse: “All these are the beginning of sorrows.” In future messages we hope to come back to some of the earlier verses.
A few weeks back, we began a series of messages on the Bible’s teaching concerning the last days. To help us avoid confusion and the false teaching that surrounds this subject, I am beginning this series with three messages that set forth three main biblical truths that we must have clearly in our minds if we are to understand the Bible’s teaching on the last days. The first of these is that there is only one future, visible coming of Jesus Christ, which will be the end of the world. In our second message we saw that the kingdom of Jesus Christ is not future and earthly, but that the millennium of Revelation 20 refers to the present spiritual rule of Jesus Christ from heaven and the triumph of the gospel in the earth.
Today, in this third message, we want to look at the Bible’s teaching that there are visible and recognizable signs of the coming of Jesus Christ and the end of the world. We will look at that generally today. Then, in the coming messages we will begin to look at the different specific signs.
This is an extremely important topic because here the Bible’s teaching on the end times becomes very practical. This subject is not a speculative armchair study that is abstract and mostly irrelevant for Christians. Rather, the signs of Jesus Christ’s coming are sent by Him to prepare us for the day of His return, and He calls us to watch and be ready. Those who teach a future millennium basically deny that there are signs of the coming of Jesus Christ, or at least say that these are not relevant or important for Christians today because we will not see them. The premillennialist, who teaches that Jesus will come in a secret rapture and take all believers to heaven, says that the tribulation and the other signs take place mostly after believers have been caught up into heaven. So, they say, we don’t need to watch for signs of the coming of Jesus Christ, and, in fact, there are no signs. We need simply to be ready for some sudden rapture. The postmillennial view of Jesus’ return says that there is before us in history an earthly golden age of gospel influence and that gradually the world will become a better and better place morally and spiritually, and only at the very end of this very long period of time will we see, perhaps, some of these signs of Jesus’ coming. Their teaching is not to look for signs of the coming of Jesus Christ but, rather, to look for signs that the world is improving.
Over against these denials, we have the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 24 that prior to His coming at the end of the world, He will send signs: events in time and history that will be observable, that will be experienced, and that true believers with discernment will understand to be the signs that we are coming closer and closer to the day of Jesus’ return.
To see this, let us look at Matthew 24. We begin with the question of the disciples in verse 3. It is toward the end of Jesus’ ministry—the last week of His earthly life, and the disciples sense this. So, in verse 3, they ask Him a question. This question has two parts. In the first part of this question, they ask Jesus: “Tell us, when shall these things be?” This follows Jesus’ teaching in verse 2 concerning the destruction of Jerusalem. They are asking, “When shall this be?” But then there is another part in the question, and that is: “What shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?” This two-part question shows the insight of the disciples. First, they see a connection between the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world. They realize, in the second place, that the coming of Jesus Christ will be the end of the world, and they expect that there will be signs of both of these things.
In these two chapters (Matt. 24 and 25), Jesus answers the question of the disciples. He answers both parts of their question. He does not give two separate answers but instead He blends His answers. He sees the same thing as the disciples do, that there is a connection between the fall of Jerusalem and His final coming. The connection is this, that the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, and the things that happened in connection with the fall of Jerusalem, are a biblical type of what will happen at the end of the world. They are the first fulfillment of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 24. But there is a second and future fulfillment at the end of the world.
We should understand that biblical prophecy is often given this way. Think, for example, of the promise that God gave to Abraham in the covenant. He promised Abraham the land on which he walked, the land of Canaan; He promised him a seed, that is, Isaac, who would be his son; and He promised, of Abraham, to make a great nation, that was the nation of Israel. But those three promises are only typical in their fulfillment to Abraham and in the Old Testament. They point ahead to something far greater. The promise of the land points to the promise of heaven. Canaan was a type of heaven. The seed, Isaac, points ahead to Christ who is the Seed. And the nation of Israel points ahead to the body of believers, the full body of all the children of Abraham who are children not by birth but by faith in Jesus Christ.
That is the way to understand Jesus’ prophecies here in Matthew 24 and 25. They are not exhaustively fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem, but this is only a type of the final destruction that is to come. So it helps us to understand what will happen in the last days.
Perhaps you say, “I don’t know much about the history of the destruction of Jerusalem.” The main things that you need to know are told here by Jesus. There was a rejection of Christ and a falling away. There were false teachers who were against Christ. There was a tribulation that came under Roman tyranny. There was the setting up, in the temple in Jerusalem, of an idol. And then there was the final destruction of the city of Jerusalem. All representative of what would take place at the end of the world.
By setting before us these multiple fulfillments of this prophecy, Jesus is teaching us that in every generation, in the current generation as well as all through history, believers should be watching and ready. He does not say to His disciples, “Well, the end of the world is thousands of years away so you don’t need to worry about it,” but “Now are the end times. The spirit of Antichrist is always at work, and always there is false teaching and the risk of persecution and so many other things for which you need to watch as God’s people.”
Before we talk about verse 8, which deals with the character of these signs, I want quickly to identify the signs so that you will understand where we are going in this series of messages. In the coming messages we want to look at some of these signs more closely. We can categorize the signs of the coming of Jesus Christ into three main groups. First there are the signs that take place in the creation, in nature, natural catastrophes. Jesus mentions them here in verse 7: famines and pestilences and earthquakes. Later in the chapter, in verse 29, He talks about an intensity of these signs that take place in creation, with the darkening of the sun and signs in the heaven, and the stars falling from the sky and the powers of heaven being shaken. These signs in the creation are a constant reminder to us of the judgment of God and the coming of Jesus Christ.
Then there are the signs in history and the history of the nations. In verses 6 and 7, Jesus mentions wars and rumors of wars. He tells us that as long as these wars continue, the end is not yet. So, through history we see these wars, but we see them as signs of the coming of Jesus Christ, persisting until very close to the end, when the kingdoms of this world will come together. They will be unified again under one kingdom and one head: Antichrist. Revelation talks about this when it speaks in Revelation 20 of Gog and Magog coming together against the holy city, the church of God. As believers with discernment, we can observe in politics and the history of the nations and wars these signs that remind us that Jesus is coming.
Signs in the third category take place in the sphere of the church, and we see here that the signs are connected to and serve the church and the work of the church in the preaching of the gospel. In verse 14, for example, there is the sign of the preaching of the gospel. This gospel must be preached in all the world. This is why there are still wars between the nations, so that the gospel can be preached. In verse 12 there is the great falling away. This will come through false teachers that will rise in the church and false christs. The wickedness of the world will spill over into the church. Or you see the sign of great tribulation. Here is the ungodly world persecuting the church and the people of God especially during the reign of the Antichrist.
So you have these signs that take place in these three different spheres: the creation, the nations, and in the church. All of these signs will culminate in one great sign at the end of time, which is the sign of the Son of man, in verse 30, when Jesus will come on the clouds of heaven with His holy angels.
For the remainder of this message I want to talk about the character of these signs as that is described for us in verse 8. In verse 8 Jesus says that “All these are the beginning of sorrows.” The focus here should not be on the word “beginning,” but on the word “sorrows.” This word “sorrows” refers to the specific pain that a woman experiences in pregnancy and childbirth. Jesus is talking about birth pangs and using an illustration here to teach us how we should understand the signs of His coming. This illustration helps us to see at least six different characteristics of the signs of the coming of Jesus Christ.
The first is this, that the signs are a necessary part of His coming. They are not just signposts on a highway that you travel along and you realize that you are getting closer and closer. Jesus does not give us a timeline of these signs but, instead, this illustration helps us to see that the signs are always there and that they increase in intensity and frequency the closer they come to the time of childbirth, and they are a necessary part of the birth of a child. It is, for example, like the sound of a train coming. You hear the horn and the engines far off. You hear the humming on the tracks even before you can see the train itself. If the train were not coming, those noises would not exist. But the coming of the train produces the signs of its coming, similar to the coming of a storm. There are dark clouds; there is wind, and rain, and hail, and lightning, and thunder—all of which are a part of the storm but tell us that the storm is coming. So it is with birth pangs. In the coming of Jesus Christ, the signs of that coming are not random, disconnected events. Rather, they are a part of His coming. The creation groans and travails, the nations rage, the kingdoms are moved, the departure in the church, and all of this is a part of the coming of Jesus Christ and brings Him.
Second, we see from this illustration that Christ is always coming, that all throughout history He is coming. Many months before a woman gives birth to a child she begins to experience contractions and her body begins to produce the signs of childbirth. That was true way back when Jerusalem fell, and really all throughout history: Jesus is coming. As we have seen in an earlier message, He came in Bethlehem. He came at Pentecost in the pouring out of the Spirit. He comes throughout history in the preaching of the gospel. He comes to us in our death. In all the events of history, this is His story, and Jesus is coming, and coming as quickly as He can. The signs are the footsteps of the coming of Jesus Christ.
Third, this illustration helps us to see that these signs will increase in frequency and intensity the closer we get to the end. At the beginning of labor, the painful contractions are not as intense and they are not as frequent. They sometimes begin even months earlier. But as the time of the day of the child’s birth gets closer, the labor becomes more intense and those signs cannot be ignored anymore. They are longer and they are harder and they are more frequent. And so it is with the coming of Jesus Christ. At first the signs of His coming are not so difficult. They are not so frequent. They are not so intense. Perhaps we might even think of them as kind of a natural occurrence. But, as time goes on, they will increase and they become more intense and they cannot be ignored anymore. They bring more pain. They affect more people. They become more frequent the closer and closer we get to the day of Jesus’ return.
Fourth, this illustration teaches us that no one knows the day or the hour of the coming of Jesus Christ. All throughout history, and even in contemporary times, there have been those who have tried to predict the day of Jesus’ return. Jesus tells us very plainly that no one can do this. “No man knows the day or the hour.” He says that even He Himself, the Son of man in His state of humiliation, did not know the day or the hour. He will come as a thief in the night. That is true with regard to a birth as well. There are labor pangs and there are contractions, but even with all the technology that can see a child and measure its size and length and spacing of the contractions and the intensity of them, one can still only approximate the time that the child will be born. A woman can go into full labor and it can take days before the child is born, or sometimes only minutes. You see, what is important is not that we know the exact timing, but that we are ready for it. So it is with labor. If a woman is at forty or forty-two weeks in her pregnancy, she does not travel the world or get on an airplane or go hiking in the woods. But she is close to a hospital and she is ready for the time when the child will be born. Similarly, we do not know the day or the hour of Jesus’ return. But we should watch and be ready.
The fifth thing that this illustration teaches us is that labor pangs are painful. So also will be the signs of the coming of Jesus Christ. Which mother enjoys the pains of labor and childbirth? No one. So it is with the coming of Jesus Christ. It will bring many sorrows and hurt and pain for God’s people too. That is even true already today. Think of the massive loss of human life that comes as the result of natural disasters. Think of the tribulation and persecution that comes against God’s people all throughout history and the many who have been slain for their faith. There is pain in the signs of the coming of Jesus Christ.
But that points us to the last characteristic here, the sixth thing that we see in this illustration, and that is this: this is not pain without a purpose. But instead, it is a pain that has a goal. These signs bring Jesus Christ. So it is with labor. The pain of childbirth produces the child. So we do not stand bewildered as God’s people when we see all these things taking place in nature or in the nations or even in the church. Things are not falling apart. It is all under the control of King Jesus. He is coming. All of it will produce His final glorious coming on the clouds of heaven. Jesus Himself uses that illustration to help us understand the last days when in John 16 He says in verse 21: “A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world.” Then He says to His disciples, “And ye now therefore have sorrow: but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you.” What joy there will be in the day when Jesus Christ comes again!
I want to close by pointing to the practical purpose of the signs. There are really two things here. The first is that we should watch for the day of Jesus Christ, and that He sends us these signs to encourage us to watch. You find that later in Matthew 24:32 and 33 when Jesus gives the parable of the fig tree. You have a parallel passage to that in Luke 21:28 and following, where we read of the signs of the coming of Jesus Christ. Jesus is talking about disaster in the creation, He is talking about war among the nations, He is talking about persecution in the church. “When these things begin to come to pass,” Jesus says, “then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh. And he spake to them a parable; Behold the fig tree, and all the trees; when they now shoot forth, ye see and know of your own selves that summer is now nigh at hand. So likewise ye, when ye see these things come to pass, know ye that the kingdom of God is nigh at hand.” This parable teaches us that these signs tell us that the coming of Jesus Christ is closer and closer. The danger of the future millennial views that deny these signs is this: God’s people are told that they do not need to watch and they do not need to prepare for the coming of Jesus Christ. This is especially dangerous because it encourages participation in a godless culture. That is part of the deceit of the false teachers and Antichrist in the last days. Eat and drink; take your ease; all things continue as they were. Then suddenly destruction will come. We must observe the signs. That does not require intelligence but it requires a spiritual alertness that is instructed by the Word of God.
But the practical purpose is not only to motivate us to watch. It is also that we be comforted. These signs remind us not only that Jesus is coming, but that He is in control of all these things. That is why in Matthew 24:6 He says that when we see all these things we should not be troubled. We have no reason to be afraid. In fact, the signs of the coming of Jesus Christ are an answer to the combined prayers of the church militant and the church triumphant. The church in heaven and the church on earth that says, “How long,” and “Come, Lord Jesus.” This is Jesus’ answer. He is saying in the signs, “I’m coming.” So when these things begin to come to pass, look up and lift up your heads for your redemption draws nigh. Jesus is coming. This is the answer to the prayers of God’s people.
Let us pray.
Father, we pray, Come, Lord Jesus, yea, come quickly. As we pray that and experience in this world tribulation, as Jesus teaches us we will, we pray that we may have grace to continue to live as pilgrims and strangers here on the earth with our eyes fixed on heaven and the day when Jesus will come and the glory that will follow for us in heaven. Come, Lord Jesus, yea, come quickly. Amen.
Dear Radio Friends,