Matthew Lesson 109 (2017)
THE BEGINNING OF BIRTH PAINS
Key Verse: 24:7-8
“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.”
Beginning this week, we will be studying Chapter 24 in three lessons. The discourse in Matthew chapter 24 is often called “the Olivet Discourse” probably because it occurred when Jesus was on the Mount of Olives. This discourse is the fifth and the final major discourse of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. The first discourse is called “the Sermon on the Mount” (5-7), in which Jesus expounds the Constitution of the kingdom of heaven. The second discourse in Matthew 10 is called “the Mission Discourse”, which includes Jesus’ instructions for his disciples’ mission trip. The third discourse in Chapter 13 includes at least five parables, in which Jesus explained various characteristics of the kingdom of heaven. So it is called “the Parabolic Discourse.” The fourth discourse in Chapter 18 is called “the Discourse of the Church,” because Jesus spoke in parables anticipating the future community of his followers on earth. Even though Jesus seems to speak about many topics, there is only one underlying theme of his discourses, which is the kingdom of heaven. Jesus’ discourse in Matthew Chapter 24 is also about the same theme, the kingdom of heaven, especially, various events leading up to the End of the Age and the Coming of the Son of Man.
As we read the whole chapter, we find that its content is very dramatic, uncomfortable, scary, even horrifying. And it seems very confusing even though we’ve read it over and over again. As I read a number of sermons and commentaries on this passage, it did help me a little bit. Yet, I still have many unanswered questions. The more we read it, the more questions arise. Why is it so? It’s partly because we try to connect what is said in this passage to our current events. I have read many well known Bible teachers and preachers who wrote about these eschatological events, sometimes with great assurance. Yet, I found they were not always right. Many who followed their teachings are also misled. So I became a little skeptical about those who claim to understand these things. And I am not even sure if Jesus meant for any of us to completely understand these things. So we will have to be very careful, at least trying not to jump into an extreme and unhealthy conclusion. I find that it’s important that we should focus not on the details of these eschatological events but on Jesus’ intent in speaking all these things.
Look at verse 1. “Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings.” In Chapter 23, Jesus warned the people in the Temple Courts about the hypocritical Jewish leaders and even pronounced the coming judgment of the entire nation Israel, including the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple (23:38-39). Now, as Jesus was about to leave the temple complex, his disciples commented to Jesus about the magnificent temple buildings. According to Mark’s account, they said, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” (Mk. 13:1) Most of Jesus’ disciples were hillbillies from Galilee. So when they saw huge and gorgeous temple buildings, they were mesmerized. Some of his disciples made remarks about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God (Lk. 21:5). Even though Jesus had already pronounced doom, they still couldn’t brush off the magnificent images of the temple buildings. (Pic#1-2) They were saying “Lord, are you really sure these huge and gorgeous buildings will go away?”
How did Jesus respond? Look at verse 2. “‘Do you see all these things?’ he asked. ‘Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.’” This was truly a shocking announcement. The Temple was the center of Judaism and the pride of the people of Israel, including Jesus’ disciples. The original Jerusalem Temple, which was built by King Solomon, was destroyed by the Babylonian army in 586 BC. And the current temple was the third temple, which was being remodeled and reconstructed by King Herod. According to historian Josephus, it was still being constructed during the time of Jesus. However, Jesus predicted that it would be completely destroyed. As a matter of fact, the temple was completed only about 6 years before its complete destruction in AD. 70. So when the disciples heard what Jesus said in verse 2, they must have been shocked.
Look at verse 3. “As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, ‘Tell us,’ they said, ‘when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’” We don’t know exactly what the disciples understood about the end times. However, we see that they immediately related the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple to the coming of the Son of Man and of the end of the age. Apparently, they believed that the coming of the Son of Man would end the current age. And followed by judgment, the Messiah would establish his kingdom on earth, defeating all the rebellious nations. This belief was probably based on Zechariah’s prophecy, particularly Zechariah chapter 14.
I think their idea about the end times is not so different from what we, as Christians, understand. It is our common understanding that the coming of the Son of Man will end the current age through global judgment, and begin the new era, the kingdom of the Messiah. But one major difference between the Jews in Jesus’ time and Christians today is that the Jews didn’t understand that there would be the Church Age, the Age of God’s grace, before the coming of the Messiah. In fact, the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple was the beginning of the Church Age. But the disciples didn’t know it at that time. So when the Risen Christ gave them the command not to leave Jerusalem but to wait for the Holy Spirit, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6) They still thought that the Risen Christ would establish his messianic kingdom on earth right away or at least very soon.
So Jesus starts his teaching of the end times by warning them and clarifying their misunderstanding. Look at verses 4-8. “Jesus answered, ‘Watch out that no one deceives you. * For many will come in my name, claiming, “I am the Messiah,” and will deceive many. * You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. * Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. * All these are the beginning of birth pains.” We definitely see many false Messiahs today. When we also hear of wars, rumors of wars, and news about famines, floods, tsunami, earthquakes and other types of natural disasters, it’s natural for us to feel alarmed and say, “We are living in the end of the world.” But that’s not really true. Why not? It’s because we are not the only ones who felt that way in history. In fact, since the fall of man such things have happened everywhere on earth. We probably hear about it more often today because of the wide spread use of the Internet. Jesus clearly said that we should not be alarmed (6) because those things are just the beginning of birth pains (8).
What did Jesus mean by “the beginning of birth pains”? Birth pains starts with contractions (labor contraction), which come periodically and become more frequent as time passes. When a pregnant woman starts having contractions, they know the time of delivery is near, very soon, within 24-48 hours. But the pain of contraction, which is the beginning of birth pains, is actually nothing compared to what is coming ahead. I never delivered a child, so I don’t know what it feels like. But I heard that it really hurts a lot, like hell. The birth pains are really difficult to bear. That’s why Jesus said in verse 22. “If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened.”
So what are the birth pains? The birth pains Jesus talks about in the following verses, 9-29, can be called “the tribulation” which by definition means “distress or suffering resulting from oppression or persecution.” When we read the book of Revelation, we get the impression that it’s God’s wrath on earth. It’s really horrible. Today, we will think about only a part of it.
Let’s read verses 9-14. “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. * At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, * and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. * Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, * but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. * And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” In these verses, Jesus particularly talks about the terrible suffering and persecution during the time of the tribulation, which is right before his second coming. Yet, we know that persecution is not something new to Christians. Throughout history, Christians have been persecuted here and there. Sometimes, the persecution was severe and other times it wasn’t. However, we see that the persecution the Christians face today is more serious than before. In many Muslim countries, like Egypt and Syria, ISIS is killing many Christians.
However, right before the second coming of Christ, it seems that there would be a global persecution of Christians. Christians during the time of tribulation will be hated by all nations simply because they would bear the name Jesus. What is worse is that at that time many Christians will turn away from their faith and will betray and hate each other. Wow! How terrible it would be! I can hardly imagine that such things would happen to Christians. Jesus said that because of the increase of wickedness, since the love of most will grow cold. Well, there will be no more humanitarian compassion or effort to help the needy in the world. The world, right before Jesus’ second coming, will be like hell, completely evil. The only way for anybody to be saved is by standing firm to the end, which most likely would lead them to death or martyrdom. It seems that during the time of tribulation, life in general would be nothing but a curse. The world seems to be under God’s wrath. So if any of us is going to go through this time of tribulation, I wonder how many of us would stand firm to the end. The time of tribulation is the time of distress and God’s wrath before the final judgment on earth through Christ’s second coming.
While studying this passage, I had two questions in my mind. The first question is “Are we in the time of tribulation?” It’s a very difficult question. What do you think? I personally don’t think so, but we are getting close to it. The second question is “Are we going to go through the time of tribulation?” Although I cannot say “yes” or “no” definitely, what the Bible seems to tell us is that we, the body of Christ or Christians, will not go through it. What will happen to us? We will be raptured or caught up in the air to be with Christ prior to the outpouring wrath of God upon this world. Apostle Paul said something encouraging concerning this matter, “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. * After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. * Therefore encourage one another with these words.” (1 Thess. 4:16-18) Yes, it is encouraging and very relieving. However, it does not mean we want to relax and take it easy. Even though we don’t have to be alarmed, we should be alert. Apostle Paul said in Romans 13:11 & 13-14, “And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed…. * Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. * Rather clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ; and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.”
Look at verse 14. “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” In fact, the church will no longer be around during the time of tribulation. But Jesus said that before the end comes, the gospel of the kingdom will still be preached to every corner of the world. How could it happen? Well, we don’t know. But it seem that God will do so through 144,000 Jewish believers who will be on earth in Revelation 7:1-8, and two witnesses in Revelation 11:1-14, who will have supernatural power to witness for 3 ½ years (1,260 days) before they are killed by the beast. Then they are raised from the dead 3 ½ years later while the world is watching. It’s still a mystery. But it’s God our Father who will accomplish everything.
Jesus said that after the gospel is preached to all nations, the end will come. In the following verses, Jesus continues to talk about what would happen during the time of great tribulation and the coming of the Son of Man. We will think about it more next week.
Let me close my sermon. It’s hard to understand the details of what will happen in the end times. But one thing we learn from this passage is that God has already determined the future of this world. The world we live in is not going to last forever no matter how much progress we make. It will be destroyed someday. Now, as Christians we know the kingdom of heaven is our real home and hope, but we still find it hard not to set our minds on the things of this world. It’s one of the greatest challenges we face as Christians not to be bound by this world even though we live in it. But, before it’s too late, we should set our mind on the things of God.
How can we set our minds on the things of God? We should continue to struggle to abide in Jesus through God’s words and prayer. We should also give ourselves to the work of redemption as first priority.
Last week, after I drove to Boston, the air conditioner of my 2005 Toyota Sienna stopped working. I tried to fix it myself but I couldn’t. I felt like throwing it away because it’s becoming a junk car and it will cost too much money to fix. Then I realized that I am actually getting old like my old minivan. In some sense, all of us are lost and broken. God knew it would cost too much to fix our problems. Yet, God didn’t hesitate to help us. He sent Jesus to be the ultimate sacrifice for our sins through his death on the cross. Now, we have a new and everlasting life and the kingdom of heaven through his grace of forgiveness of sins. One thing I should never forget is that the kingdom of heaven is not for the perfect but for the forgiven. We shouldn’t expect perfection from others, not even from our spouse. Why not? It’s because we are all damaged and broken people. Yet, we are invited to enter the kingdom of heaven only by God’s grace. The grace of forgiveness of sins is abundant and still available for everyone. Our primary mission as a Christian includes helping people who have a lot of problems. Even though there are many problems and people may have a lot of problems, it’s still the time of God’s grace and God’s salvation. So as long as it is day, I must do my best to do God’s work.
There will come a day when the grace of salvation is no longer available. Time is ticking. Even though there are many things that demand our time and attention, nothing is more important and meaningful than to share the good news of salvation and help those who would be completely lost and remain broken. I know it’s not easy. We need God’s help. But when we do so, we will actually have the kingdom of heaven dwelling in us.
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