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1. Jesus predicts the future – the church age

| Martin Charlesworth
Series 12: Episode 1
Matthew 24:1-14 Mark 13:1-13 Luke 21:5-19

The disciples ask three questions but Jesus begins by giving them background predictions about the future age of the Church.

The disciples ask three questions but Jesus begins by giving them background predictions about the future age of the Church.

Transcript

Hello and welcome to the beginning of Series 12, Episode 1. The first few episodes of this series will be taken up with Jesus' teaching about the future, and prophesying events that will happen in the world, in the Church, in the nation of Israel and towards his Second Coming or his return. This is going to be a very exciting set of episodes, as we look at these very important subjects. We're going to be studying from Matthew 24 and then Matthew 25. Today we're going to study in Matthew 24: 1 - 14.

Introduction and Recap

In order to set the scene, we need to go back a little and think about series 11. Some of you will have followed that series through and be familiar with all the material in it, but in case you haven't, and in case you haven't got that clear in your minds, let's set the context clearly from the beginning. Series 11 deals with a three- or possibly four-day period in which Jesus enters Jerusalem and conducts his last public ministry in Jerusalem. This is right at the end of his life. He's been travelling towards Jerusalem for some time and this is well recorded in Luke's Gospel with material from John added in. He comes in to the city of Jerusalem after three years' ministry mostly in Galilee, for the last time in a very public and confrontational kind of way. There has been a long-standing tension between Jesus and his claim to be the Messiah - the Saviour, the son of David, the Redeemer of Israel - and the religious leaders, often represented by the Pharisees, who have resisted his claims and condemned him as a false messiah, false prophet, and false teacher. They've even claimed that the power he exercises to perform miracles comes from occult demonic power. That is seen in Matthew 12: 24, and in other places. Jesus comes to Jerusalem in order to provoke a final confrontation with the religious establishment, which controls the religious and cultural life of the Jews. Even though the Romans are the political leaders, they leave religion and culture largely to the Jewish people to sort out for themselves, and the Sanhedrin, the 70-man ruling Jewish Council, controls all religious matters. They have been meeting and talking about Jesus for a very long time; they sent investigation teams up to Galilee to find out what he's doing. They've observed him; they questioned him; and had already adjudicated that they are against him; and they want to get rid of him. We know from the material in John's Gospel that they were looking for a time to arrest Jesus, to try him and to get the Romans to execute him - they didn't have the power to judicially kill people - execute people for crimes because of the Imperial authorities - they had to hand people over to the Romans and they made the final decision.

This was their plan, but Jesus came into Jerusalem in triumph with a huge crowd on Palm Sunday. The following day, he went into the Temple and sensationally overturned the tables of the money changers and those dealing with buying and selling of animals and birds related to animal sacrifice and the sacrificial system in the Temple. These people were making a lot of money. They were making a lot of money on behalf of the priests and Jesus condemned and criticised the system. Then, on the Tuesday, there was a long day of questioning, debating and argument between Jesus and the religious authorities based around the Temple compound. We're coming towards the end of that day in the likely chronology of the last week of Jesus's life.

The very last thing that's happened, which we looked at in the final episode, Series 11 Episode 12,  was the major statement of condemnation that Jesus made of the religious establishment, particularly the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law. This is stated very clearly in the whole of Matthew 23, which we read through in the last episode. It's pretty sober reading. It's sombre stuff because Jesus essentially claims that the whole religious establishment is riddled with corruption and hypocrisy, double standards and unbelief, and will ultimately come under the condemnation of God, and under his judgement.

The last chapter, Matthew 23, ends with some significant statements which are in fact the springboard for the material that we're going to look at in the beginning of Matthew 24. I'm going to start by going to Matthew 23: 37 - 39. Jesus says these things:

‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings and you are not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate! For I tell you that you'll not see me again until you say ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’’.

Matthew 23:37-39, NIV

I explained the meaning of these verses very briefly towards the end of the last episode. I'll repeat that to give us a basis for moving forward. Jesus wanted to reach out to the city of Jerusalem, to reassure the city and to bring faith into the city but he was unable to do so. The people there were ultimately unwilling and suspicious, and their leaders totally hostile. He predicts that because they were unwilling to respond to him as the Messiah. Verse 38, ‘Look, your house is left to you desolate!’, he's predicting a time when the Temple will be abandoned, not functioning any more, and then in verse 39, he says ‘You're not going to see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’. In other words, ‘you won't see me again until you welcome me because you've had a change of heart and you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’. This is probably a reference to the Second Coming of Jesus much further in history, where Jewish leaders, particularly, and Jewish people, will be more receptive to the coming of the Messiah than they were the first time.

Prediction about The Temple

That's the context for our study today, which is based in Matthew 24. Let's read the first three verses.

‘Jesus left the Temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. ‘Do you see these things?’ he asked. ‘Truly, I tell you not one stone here will be left on another. Every one will be thrown down!’ 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?’

Matthew 24:1-3, NIV

The scene starts with Jesus leaving the Temple, which of course is in the middle of the city, and the disciples talking to him about the amazing building that it was - and it truly was an amazing building. Jesus makes this astonishing prediction, that the whole building is going to be destroyed. ‘These great stones of the Jewish Temple are not going to be standing together in the future. There's going to come a time of its destruction’, rather like in verse 38 of the previous chapter, ‘Your house is left to you desolate’. There's going to be destruction of the Temple. It's a really astonishing prediction and absolutely nothing in the political, or religious, circumstances of the day outwardly speaking, that would suggest any possible reason why such a drastic thing should happen. Jesus predicted it unambiguously.

Three Important Questions

Then, he walked out of the city, down a small valley, known as the Kidron Valley, up the other side to a small hill that overlooks the city from which you get a great view of the city, slightly higher than the city. Modern tourists go there and take photographs of the old city of Jerusalem. You may have seen those photographs. These are taken from what's known as the Mount of Olives. Jesus was sitting with his disciples looking over the city now. He's come out of the city. He's looking back at the city. They ask him this question: ‘Tell us’, they said, ‘when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’ Let's look at the disciples' questions because these are very important in interpreting this passage. There are three questions here; ‘When will this happen?’ a reference to the destruction of the Temple, as Jesus stated in verse 2, and also referred to indirectly in 23: 38, as I mentioned. ‘When will the destruction of the Temple take place?’ Question number one. Question number two: ‘What will be the sign of your coming?’ This means the return of Christ. All the way through his teaching there have been times when Jesus has explained that he's coming twice. First, for salvation - to die on the cross, to minister publicly, to be raised again from the dead, to launch the Church community and the mission to the world and the Second Coming is a return later in history - in glory and power, redemption and judgement. ‘What will be the sign of your coming?’ and the third question, ‘What will be the sign of the end of the age?’

There are three questions here, and it is possible that the disciples thought that all these events would happen at the same time. Maybe when the Temple was destroyed, it would be destroyed by Jesus returning again. Maybe when Jesus returned again, it would be the end of the age and then a new eternal age would be launched. As we interpret Matthew 24, and the subsequent teaching in Matthew 25 follows on, it's important to keep these three questions in mind. I believe Jesus answers these three questions. During the next episodes, we'll be dealing with these questions and seeing what answers he brings. He'll talk about the Temple, about his Second Coming and about the end of the age. It turns out that they're not all going to happen at the same time, and that's the key that we're going to need to understand.

Jesus starts his teaching by giving a more general overview, or background, to what we might describe as the era of the Church, which is just about to start. That's what we're going to look at in today's episode. The more specific answers to those other three questions will come in the episodes that follow, so I hope you'll join us for those. For today, we're going to focus on the general background that Jesus gives.

Jesus' Perspective of the Future

This is extremely important to understand Jesus' perspective of the future, so we are going to read from Matthew 24: 4 - 14.

‘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'll hear of wars and rumours 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. Then you'll be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you'll 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.’

Matthew 24:4-14, NIV

Specific Predictions about the Age of the Church

There are a number of specific predictions here, about the age of the Church - that's the era we are living in. Even though it's 2000 years later, this teaching is still relevant for us. What does Jesus predict? Firstly, false messiahs and false prophets. We see that in verse 5: ‘Many will come in my name claiming, ‘I'm the Messiah’, and will deceive many’, verse 11: ‘Many false prophets will appear and deceive many people’. Since the time of Jesus Christ, many people have come claiming to be a messiah like Jesus, or a prophet prophesying about Jesus and claiming their own authority. Many people have started cults and religions based on some so-called superior revelation to the revelation that Jesus brings. Some people have written so-called holy books to add on to the Bible which actually contradict the Bible. This is a pattern that we've seen happening throughout the history of the Church. Jesus warns people. ‘If anyone claims to be the Messiah, the son of God, don't believe them! Don't believe them under any circumstances.’ If people claim to be a prophet, we need to test those prophets to see whether their teachings are in accordance with, and in agreement with, and under submission to the authority of Scripture. Many religious prophets have come, have predicted a lot of things that haven't happened, and have often drawn attention to themselves, or created a powerbase, or a financial empire out of their so-called prophetic ministry. Jesus warns that these things will happen.

He also warns that there's going to be extensive international war and conflict in the age of the Church: verse 6, ‘You'll hear of wars and rumours of wars, but don't be alarmed. See to it that you're not alarmed Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.’ The existence of warfare, which is very tragic of course, is a reality that will go through the age of the Church. We are not to be alarmed by international conflict. It doesn't tell us anything decisive about whether the end of the world is close, or whether Jesus is coming back again. Such conflicts have gone on regularly all the way through the Church age. They're not the defining feature, although they are extremely distressing for the world and for the nations that are subject to them. He goes on to describe humanitarian disasters, famines and earthquakes. Luke 21: 10, the parallel passage, adds in pestilences, meaning epidemics of diseases. We'll see many international wars; we'll see many natural and humanitarian disasters taking place in the world. Jesus warns that this will happen.

He also warns that persecution overall will increase. If you look at verse 9, you see that clearly stated. He also indicates that there'll be a division in the Church between the true, sincere and wholehearted believers and those who are nominal believers whose so-called love of Christ will fade away when the pressure comes. It looks like there's going to be a process of purification of the Church throughout the Church age, and particularly towards the end of that Church age. The true Church will persevere and develop, but the nominal church will fade away under pressure. Many people who nominally claim to be Christians will not be found to have true faith when the pressure comes. That's quite a sobering prediction and we do see, for example in Western societies, the fading away of much Christianity. It turns out that many people filling pews, only had traditional belief systems, or nominal faith, or cultural faith. That living faith is not there.

Then verse 14, a wonderful and vital statement which qualifies all these other things, and gives a really good perspective on all the other hardships that are mentioned.

‘And this Gospel of the Kingdom will be preached in the whole world is a testimony to all nations and then the end will come,’

Matthew 24:14, NIV

It appears that there is going to be a very vigorous Church. Even as nominal Christians fade away, the Gospel being preached to all the nations is going to require a vigorous and a strong, healthy and numerous Church, and a great emphasis on mission and evangelism. In the modern era, we have seen a lot of nominal faith but we've also seen tremendously vigorous missionary movements. There's many in the world today, and you may be part of one of those. I want to encourage you with this verse. This is our mandate. We're going to be preaching the Gospel as a testimony to all nations - every part of the world. It's wonderful to think how many nations have a living Church planted within them. It's wonderful to think how many nations have the Scriptures in their own national languages, translated and available for them. It's wonderful to see the missionary energy that is in the Church today, in certain parts of the world. This should be a tremendous encouragement to us as we see the world around us in turbulence, as we see nominal Christianity gradually fading away; the true and living Church should be energised. Even as it's refined by persecution, that Church can live on, and that Church can have great power.

These are Jesus's initial teachings. This gives context to his specific answers to the disciples' three questions, that we're going to begin to look at in the next episode. Before they get answers to their specific questions, Jesus wants them to see the bigger picture. It's quite clear that the Church is going to be growing and developing in difficult and complex environments in the centuries that followed Jesus' death and resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit. In fact, Jesus predicts something similar in the parable of The Weeds, which we studied in Series 5 Episode 9, from Matthew 13, where we find that a farmer goes out and plants seed in his field. He finds the next day that overnight, an enemy has come in and planted the seeds of weeds amongst his good seed. His workers want to pull up all the weeds as they begin to grow, but he says, ‘No, leave them because if you pull them up, you'll disturb the others, and you'll reduce the productivity of the crop.’ He says the division between the good seed and the bad seed is going to come in the season of harvest. The good seed will be harvested and the weeds will be burned with fire; so good and evil growing up together is a particular prediction of Jesus Christ. This is what's going to happen in the world as the Church makes its way and makes its impact. That's what we see around us. I wonder how that applies in your culture and in your country? I can think of ways that it applies here in the UK in my context but maybe there'll be some different applications in your country; you see evil rising up very strongly and think you're powerless against it. Don't forget that the good seed is growing up as well. You can't overturn all that evil immediately. It's going to be left to Jesus Christ at the Second Coming to deal with it fundamentally. The good seed can still be very productive.

Jesus describes the age of the Church which we're living in, in Matthew 24: 8, in a very telling metaphor:

‘all these are the beginnings of birth pains.’

Matthew 24:8, NIV

The experience that the Church has in the age of the Church before Jesus comes again is rather like a woman's pains in childbirth. In a normal pregnancy and normal labour pains, the intensity of the pains of childbirth increase towards the moment of the birth of a newborn baby. There's some preliminary contractions, some early discomforts and early pain, that intensifies very significantly towards the end of that period of time. The pain is concentrated into the last few minutes and hours of the nine month pregnancy before this new child is born. This is the metaphor that Jesus used to describe the Church age. At the end, there's going to be an intensification of pain and difficulty in suffering, persecution, just before Christ comes again which can be likened to the birth of a new age. However, we endure those difficulties with the hope of something wonderful that will follow. In the same way that a woman is prepared to endure the tremendous pains of labour because she anticipates the wonderful moments of bringing a new child into the earth. This is a very creative and wonderful way of describing the developments that will take place in the Church age.

The Church will indeed be purified. Maybe it is being purified even now. Maybe that's your experience in your country. Don't be afraid of that purification of faith. Gospel preaching and church planting will continue across the world and we've seen a very dynamic process of mission and church planting taking place in many parts of the world in my lifetime, It's taking place right now as you listen to this recording. God is at work. Some of his church planting networks are working largely underground, in countries where the law and the government are against the Church; some of those networks are flourishing in free societies; some operating in poor countries; and some operating in much more affluent countries. There is a vigour of church planting and mission in our world today which we need to endorse and to encourage because we have the mandate here in verse 14,

‘The Gospel of the Kingdom will be preached to the whole world as a testimony to Jesus’.

Matthew 24:14, NIV

That's exactly what Jesus called his disciples to do when he commissioned them at the end of his life. Matthew 28: 18,

‘All authority in heaven on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always to the very end of the age’.

Matthew 28:18-20, NIV

This is a development of what's said in Matthew 24: 14, and the wonderful thing is that Christ is with the Church, through the presence of the Holy Spirit to the very end of the age. What is the end of the age? The end of the age is the return of Christ; the very thing that is the central topic of the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 24, as we'll find out as the chapter progresses.

‘This Gospel of the Kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations and then the end will come.’

Matthew 24:14, NIV

Reflections

Here's the first section of this extremely important teaching about what we call the end times. We're keeping in mind the fact that the disciples asked three questions in the first verses of this chapter. ‘When will the destruction of the Temple happen?’ ‘What will be the sign of Jesus's return in his second coming?’ and ‘What would be the sign of the end of the age?” We're going to focus on those questions more specifically because Jesus answers those questions in the teaching that follows on. In this episode, he has given us the bigger and wider context in which to interpret the things that he's going to say later, and also in which to interpret the experience of our own lives. You may want to take a moment to reflect on your own situation in your own country. You may want to think about how some of these issues have affected you: the humanitarian and natural disasters, the impact of warfare, conflict and disease; the issue of persecution; the issue of false messiahs and false prophets arising and deceiving many people; and the issue of nominal faith as against real true and living faith. What really matters is true and living faith, true discipleship of Jesus, One way to strengthen that discipleship is to study the teaching of Jesus closely and to be reinforced by it. That's what we're doing in this section of Jesus' teaching in Matthew 24 and the parallel passages Luke 21 and Mark 13 are incredibly important to help us get a really good perspective and to increase our faith as we face an uncertain world. Thanks for studying.

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