Sermon: The Certain End of an Uncertain Culture - Matthew 24

If we love Him, we will love His return. As Titus 2:13 says, "looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus."

Scriptures: Matthew 24

Introduction

Our culture is fascinated with the end times. The widespread popularity of the "Left Behind" series of books by Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins demonstrates our culture's fascination with this subject. While the world approaches this subject with fear and speculation, as Christians we have a different perspective.

It is with great joy that we as believers can look forward to the return of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We know how the culture will end; the scripture says that the Lord Himself will descend from heaven, with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ shill rise first, then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and thus we shall always be with the Lord. (1 Thess. 4:13ff) That, my friend is a certain end, to an uncertain culture. But what till then? What happens till then?

It is with great biblical authority that we can profess "Things will get worse before they get better." Jesus tells us what the culture will look like before He returns. There will be wars, famines, earthquakes, pestilences and the persecution of His people. He tells us that there will be many false prophets, lawlessness will abound and the love of many will grow cold. He also tells us that the gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world, to all nations.

For Christians living in a pagan and godless generation this passage is of particular significance for it gives us a certain word that someday, and it could be soon, the world as we know it will come to an end. Jesus will return with His holy angels and He will take His children home.

Matthew, chapters 24 and 25 are thematically tied together, as both chapters deal with the second coming of Christ. To a large degree, these two chapters comprise our Lord's response to two questions set forth by the disciples. In the first part of chapter 24 Jesus tells of the signs that will precede His return. The last part of chapter 24 through chapter 25 give us instruction as to how we are to live until He returns. Seen in their proper context they are quite instructive and practical.

The difficulties surrounding these two chapters, and the verses of our passage this morning in particular, often arise when one of two problems occur. One deals with interpretation and deals with translation. Before we get to the heart of what Jesus is saying, and because it is integral to our proper understanding of this passage, allow me to briefly address these two problems.

A. Interpretation from the wrong point of view

It must be understood that Jesus has not given us this passage as some sort of puzzle or riddle. Many people approach the scripture as if it were some sort of brainteaser that they must try and crack so as to learn its secrets. That's why fiction like "The Divinci Code" is so popular. People are trying to use the scripture for something other than that for which it is intended. Jesus does not give us this text or any other for that matter, to enable us to pinpoint the specific date of His return, but rather to tell us how things will be before He returns and how we should live till He does return. He is telling us that Judgment is coming and that we had better be good stewards of what He has given us, that we had better be expecting His return because it will come when the world least expects it. So instead of wasting our time trying to figure out WHEN He will return, this passage is telling us what we should be doing Till He returns.  Remember one thing: We are given God's word not merely to inform us but rather to transform us. Truth can transform, but only truth that is placed into application. Our Lord's message is meant to change our lives, not merely fill our heads.

B. Translation

When we translate a passage of scripture we must seek to assign meaning to specific words. Words mean different thing depending upon the context of the sentence or paragraph or even the book, in which they are written. For example the word lie, can mean a falsehood or it can mean to rest in a horizontal position upon a bed or couch. Everything depends upon the context. This is of particular importance in this passage, specifically in verse 34 and the word "generation."

There are many different views as to what verse 34 means. The problem occurs specifically with the translation and understanding of the word "generation." We have a tendency to understand the word "generation" in the Old Testament sense of the word, which most often refers to a lifespan or a time period of about 40 years. The problem is that the New Testament "genea" does not necessarily mean the same thing. To understand any word we must understand, not only its grammatical roots, but we must understand its context as well.

Suffice it to say that given its grammatical roots and the context within which Jesus uses the word, it is impossible for the word "generation" to merely refer to those people alive at the time He spoke these words. The word can also be translated "race" or "kind." Thus Jesus is saying here that the Jewish race would not be completely wiped out but would still be on the earth when He returned. This of course was something that could not be taken for granted. Many nations or people groups that existed two thousand years ago are no longer in existence today. Jesus was giving a prophetic word, guaranteeing that the Jews, as a people, will be here until He returns.

All of this sets the stage for the message of Jesus.

In the first part of Chapter 24 Jesus tells the disciples that not one stone of the temple would be left upon another. The disciples ask Him When these things will happen and what the signs will be announcing His coming and the end of the age.

As to the signs, Jesus tells them that things will get bad before He returns. As to when, He tells them that no one knows the day or the hour of His return, not even the angels in heaven, only the Father knows. But then Jesus goes on to tell several parables that illustrate what it is the church should be about till He returns.

So we have these two major sections. A description of the culture, and a prescription for the church.

I. Description of the culture when Christ returns

Look at Chapter 24:4-14

A. Political realm - Wars and rumors of wars

According the United Nations official website, the number of wars being waged around the world is growing.

"United Nations peacekeeping is facing an extraordinary challenge. The number of operations is reaching a record level, troop deployment is on an upward spiral and the need for more civilian specialists is becoming acute. Early in 2004, the United Nations Security Council was facing the prospect of creating or expanding peacekeeping operations on an unprecedented scale. At that time, the UN's Department of Peacekeeping Operations was managing 15 field operations, including 14 peacekeeping and one political mission. Adding to this list were potential operations in Burundi, Sudan and Haiti."

The United Nations defines "major wars" as military conflicts inflicting 1,000 battlefield deaths per year. In 1965, there were 10 major wars under way. The millennium ended with much of the world consumed in armed conflict or cultivating an uncertain peace. At the end of 2003, there were 15 Major Wars under way, with at least 20 "lesser" conflicts ongoing.

The world is becoming more and more hostile. Contrary to all the dreams of the enlightenment and the empty promises of the secular educators, man is not getting better and better. He is merely learning how to become more efficient at killing one another.

Today there are wars and rumors of war.

B. Natural realm

Jesus said that in the days before He returned there would be famines, pestilence and earthquakes in various places.

Most Americans live in a bubble, unaware of the world around them. Are you aware that in Kenya, torrential rainfall has displaced thousands from their homes and destroyed crops and homes; in Djibouti, a cholera outbreak has the world health organization concerned; in Madagascar, cyclones have wiped out most of their crops, in Zambia, floods have devastated the land; West Africa is beset by a plague of desert locusts; in Kyrgyzstan, landslides have taken a number of lives and are becoming a major problem; in Tajikistan, earthquakes are destroying homes and killing folks, and in Iran, some 43,200 people were recently killed in an earthquake that measured 6.7 on the Richter scale, and these are only a few of the more than 90 such reports, just within the last six months.

Sounds like things are getting ready in the natural realm. But what about the moral realm?

C. Moral realm

He said it would be a day of lawlessness - a day when people rejected any kind of authority. Remember that post-modernism carries with it the rejection of all kinds of authority. In fact post-modern philosophy defines truth as a social construct of those who are in authority that is merely designed to oppress others, thus, they say, all supposed truth must be rejected.

If there was ever a day of lawlessness it is today. It is interesting to note that the Greek word here translated "lawlessness," is only found 16 times in the New Testament. 12 of those 16 times it is translated "iniquity or iniquities." It is the strongest word in the New Testament to describe sin. There are two other major words the New Testament uses to describe sin, but both of them can contain the element of ignorance, that is, they can refer to people sinning against God while unaware of who He is and what it is He commands. But the world here translated lawlessness carries with it the exact opposite meaning. It means that man knows what the moral law of God is but not only purposely chooses to disobey it, but chooses to do away with God's law altogether, thus it translates lawless, or without God's law.

Jesus is saying that before he returns people will be given over to sin, as they were in the days of Noah, as they were when they provoked God to destroy the earth with the great flood. They will do what is evil and call it good, they will seek to eradicate all elements of God's law from their lives (the secularization of society) and they will live according to how they feel, following the desires of their reprobate minds.

This is what it will be like in the days before Jesus comes. But what of the Spiritual realm?

D. Spiritual realm

There will be false prophets

Friends, a false prophet is one who teaches and preaches that which is contrary to the word of God. You don't have to look very hard to find them. One website I visited while researching this message was "deceptioninthechurch.com. In an open letter to readers, their webmaster says,

"Myths abound today.  False teachers are everywhere, especially on the television and radio, and traveling to every country of the world trying to take the spotlight away from the true work of God in the local church and missions and placing it on "signs and wonders" and on false testimonies people have made up out of their fertile and sinful minds.  Many Christians have itching ears today, no longer wanting to hear the truth of God's Word to obey it, but instead would rather see and participate in a circus atmosphere and listen to wild unsubstantiated stories."

As strange as it may seem, people are being led into cults and false religions by the millions. Thanks to broadcast technology, today's false prophets can reach more people than every before.

But not only will there be false prophets, but…

The love of many will have grown cold.

Some years ago I had breakfast with a retiring pastor. His was a successful church, averaging a couple of thousand on any given Sunday Morning. He sat across the table from me and told me that he would not trade places with me for anything. I was in my early thirties at the time and he was in his mid 60's. He said that times had changed and that it was more difficult to lead God's people today than it had ever been. I spoke with another pastor recently who said he could not imagine what he could get done if he didn't have to spend all of his time trying to get God's people to simply be about God's business.

Like the church at Ephesus, many churches and many Christians have lost their first love. They have become so enamored by the world in which they live, they have forgotten that they are to live for the world that is yet to come. They have forgotten that they are merely pilgrims here on earth, this is not their home. Like the vanity Fair, in Pilgrim's progress, the world has allured many Christians, turning their love for Christ into a selfish love for pleasure. Satan knows he cannot have our souls, but he can distract us, and keep us from being and doing what God wants us to be and do. Filling our hearts, hands and heads with things of this world, he causes us to let our love for Christ grow cold.

If the culture in which we live is evil, if it has become godless and secular, it is no one's fault but our own. We, as God's people have been called to be the salt and light, we have been called as God's ambassadors. If our culture rots it is because we have neglected the battlefield and the weapons of our warfare, having instead opted for the playground of this world.

E. Missions realm - 24:14

The gospel shall be preached in the whole world to all the nations, and then the end shall come.

Never before in the history of the world have we had the capacity to preach the gospel to all nations like we do today. With modern technology, with travel being made easier, with language becoming less and less of a barrier thanks to computers, the gospel can now be preached around the world.

The results from the mission field are astonishing. People are getting saved in places you can hardly believe. Muslims are having dreams about Jesus and are seeking out Christians and coming to Christ, churches in third world countries are sprouting up in record numbers. Great population centers like China and India, the two most populated countries on the earth, are experiencing great movements of God's Spirit.

Just this last week, the ruling BJP party of India, which was strongly Hindu, was defeated, opening the door for Christians more freely proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. House churches in China continue to explode and it seems like God is opening doors once thought forever closed. Who would have ever thought that the Iron Curtain would come down in our lifetime? And yet it did? God is moving around the world today like never before, and it is happening before our very eyes. Jesus is preparing the world for His return.

F. The Social Realm - Life will go on as usual

Look at 24:37-39.

The emphasis here is not so much on how wicked the folks were in the days of Noah, even though they were wicked enough to incur God's destructive wrath. The emphasis here is on the fact that the people in Noah's day, in spite of being warned, carried on with business as usual. The mundane and ordinary things of life so preoccupied them, that they ignored the preaching of Noah, they ignored the building of the ark. So little attention did they pay to Noah, that when the floods came they were caught totally by surprise.

That's the emphasis here in verses 40-41. It's not so much the separation of families or friends, as it is how much of a surprise the second coming of Jesus will be to some people.

The message here is that in spite of these warning signs, in spite of the gospel being preached, in spite of all these things, people will have ignored the obvious, and have opted for the things which fill up everyday life. Thus, they will not understand until after He returns.

Thus Jesus describes the culture that will exist when He returns.

II. Prescription for the church until Christ returns.

But remember, Jesus does not merely give us this to inform us about His return, but rather to transform us, to get us into motion, into activity, so that when He returns He will find us doing what it is He has called us to do.

The parables that follow this teaching on the Lord's return each carry with them at least one powerful truth. The parable of the Faithful steward calls us to faithfulness, the parable of the ten virgins calls us to both preparedness and expectancy, and the parable of the talents calls us to Stewardship. It is to this end that Jesus has given us this passage. Not merely to answer the questions of the disciples, but to instruct us and encourage us to be busy about His work when He returns.

A. Preparedness

Are we prepared for the second coming of Christ? Have you told everyone you need to tell about the gospel? Is your own family in order? What about your own life? Is it in order? I mean, the real question is, If Jesus came back today, would you be ready?

We've been looking for another house recently, one where I can have a quiet place to study at home. Of course that means we have to sell the house we are currently in, so we've been getting things ready, repairing those little broken things, fixing up here and there, landscaping, polishing, getting ready so that when someone comes to see the house, it will be ready for them to view. And we are going to have to live in that state of readiness until it sells. You see, once you put it on the market, at a moment's notice you could get a call telling you that someone wants to come and see your house, and it has to be ready to show.

There will be no phone call telling you Christ is returning. He will come, the question is will your house be in order, and will you be prepared?

B. Stewardship

This begs the question: How are you using that which belongs to God but He has entrusted to you, to be faithful and prepared for His return?

Many Christians today give little or no thought to the reality that everything we as Christians have belongs to God. If we could see eternity, just for a nano-second, from God's perspective, we would understand with great clarity the significance of this principle of stewardship. God has saved us from our sins, transferred us from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of His dear Son, not merely to save us from eternity in hell, but specifically to empower us with His Spirit so that we might accomplish His will here on earth. That is the reason He gives us what He gives us.

Your house, your job, your children, your spouse, your time, your treasures, your talents, in fact, everything you have belong to God, and someday each of us will be judged according to our faithfulness to use God's things to accomplish God's will. This is the lesson of the parable of the talents. You cannot bury or squander them, you must use them for their owner's benefit.

So, how are you using what God has given you for His benefit, or for His glory? And what will you say to Him when He calls you into account?

C. Expectancy

Expectancy is different than preparedness. Preparedness is being ready for His return, but Expectancy is looking forward to His return, expecting it with great anticipation and eagerness.

Expectancy speaks to the degree to which we are in love with Jesus. You remember when you fell in love, you could not wait to talk to your sweetheart, you could not wait to see them, to hold their hand and spend time with them. You were in love and your level of expectancy, or anticipation, spoke volumes of your love. What about your love for Christ? Is it passionate and expectant? Is it that you can hardly wait to see Jesus, is it that you are anticipating His return with great joy, or is it that that you've become so comfortable here on earth that you have a "heaven can wait" kind of attitude.

If we love Him, we will love His return. As Titus 2:13 says, "looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus."

D. Kingdom activity

This is the bottom line issue - what is it that you are doing today that will make a difference in eternity. Knowing the signs of the times are everywhere, knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ could return at any given moment, what is it you are doing in your life to make a difference till He comes? Are you living with expectancy? Are you prepared? What kind of steward are you? I mean, when Jesus returns and calls you to give an account for all He has entrusted to you, what will you tell Him? How have you used your time? How have you used your talents? How have you used your treasures? What about your children, your spouse, your house, your car, your vacations? Have you used them for His glory or for your own pleasure?

Instead of getting caught up in the things of this world, we are to be busy about the work of the kingdom of God. It is easy to get discouraged and like so many Christians from days gone by to begin to think that Jesus is not going to return, of at least not any time soon. Jesus said in 24:44 that He will return when you do not think He will. We must be faithful to continue on with the work of His kingdom, in spite of our temptation to give up or to give in. When He returns may He find us busy, faithfully about His work.

The old spiritual says, "are you ready, are you ready, are you ready for the coming of the Lord?"

  • What about you friend, are you ready?
  • Have you ever given your life to Christ?
  • Are you living your life for Christ?
  • What difference will your life make in eternity?
  • What are you willing to do to change that?
Dr. Calvin Wittman is pastor of Applewood Baptist Church, Wheat Ridge, Colorado. He serves as a trustee at Criswell College, and regularly contributes to Open Windows, a monthly LifeWay devotional publication.