Our text is from Matthew 24:1-13: 1 Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. 2 But he answered them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”
3 As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” 4 And Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray. 5 For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. 6 And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. 7 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.
9 “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. 10 And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. 11 And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. 12 And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. 13 But the one who endures to the end will be saved. (ESV)
Today is the 2nd last Sunday in the church year. This is the time on the church’s calendar when we focus on the end, when the heavens and the earth and all creation will be shaken by the voice of God, when Christ will appear in great glory and might to judge the living and the dead. We are reminded that this world is passing away. The time is growing short. Salvation is nearer today than it ever was before. It is time for us to wake up from our spiritual sleepiness, to keep vigil with sober prayer, to worship God with reverence and awe.
In our text this morning, Jesus and His disciples are leaving the temple in Jerusalem. As they look around the temple grounds, they can’t help but marvel at its majesty. “Look Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” But Jesus draws His disciples’ attention beyond the beauty of the buildings to the coming judgment of God. “Not one stone will be left on another,” He tells them, “every one will be thrown down.” These were disturbing words. The days of the temple were numbered. In 70 AD, just six years after the last stone was set in place, the Roman army would knock it down. As it went with the temple, so it will go with the whole world. The destruction of the temple was a picture prophesy of the end of the world. What the Romans would do to the temple in 70 AD, God Himself will do to the heavens and earth with the thunder of His voice.
The disciples were silent. They didn’t say anything until later, when they sat down with Jesus on the Mount of Olives across from the temple. You could tell they were troubled. “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?”
Jesus gives them a sign. Not the sort of sign they had wanted or expected, but the sort of sign they would need to see them through to the end. He never tells them when. That is not for them to know. It is not for us to know either. Nor may we speculate on it. The end is a matter of trust in the Lord, who is the Beginning and the End. But He does set out a few signposts along the way, signs that will keep the disciples’ vision clear and their hearts focused on His coming.
The nations of the world will be a sign for the disciples. There will be wars far and near and rumors of wars. Nation against nation, kingdom against kingdom. From the very front pages of the newspaper you will see this sign of the end. For all our talk of peace and cooperation, we are much better acquainted with war and violence. In fact, the 20th century was the bloodiest in history. In the 20th century, more people died on the battlefield and more Christians were martyred for their faith than in all the previous centuries of recorded history combined. More people have suffered at the hands of dictators and governments in the 20th century than at any other time in world history. These are all a sign “that the end is yet to come.”
The creation, too, will be a sign. There will be earthquakes and famines. The shaking earth and failing food supply are signs that the end is coming upon us.
And yet, bad as it all sounds, the disciples are not to live their lives in fear. This suffering, these agonies and upheavals, wars and earthquakes and famines, are not a sign that God has abandoned His creation. They are not the start of death throes, but of birth pains. Jesus views the end as the way toward Life and eternal joy. The labor pains of an expectant mother ultimately bring joy and the birth of a child; so too, wars and disasters are the painful contractions of the new creation being born. The sharper and more intense the pain, the closer the delivery. That is how the disciples of Jesus can rejoice even in the midst of suffering. Jesus helps us to see beyond the pain, beyond the killing, the earthquake, the famine. Jesus helps us to see the coming kingdom of God and its joy.
One last sign of the end is the church. Jesus paints no rosy picture for His disciples. Those who follow Him must also follow Him in rejection and in suffering. “You will be delivered up to tribulation and put to death,” just as Jesus was handed over to be tried and crucified. “Because of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them,” just as Jesus stood before the council, before Herod, and before Pilate. We recall St. Stephen, preaching before the council and being stoned to death for his message. Or St. Paul, testifying in chains as a prisoner of the Gospel. Even today, Christians suffer for and witness to the name of Jesus. We think of our fellow believers who live under communist rule in China, or those Christians who live under Moslem rule. We are reminded of Paul’s words to Timothy: everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12).
Jesus’ sign of persecution is a sobering sign for us. At present, we can worship in comfort. We can speak freely. But will we worship when it is no longer comfortable? Will we speak when it is no longer free? Jesus said, “you will be hated by all nations because of me.” If you want the world to like you, do not hang around too close to Jesus, for His disciples will be tested and tried by fire. The disciples of Jesus are tested so that their hope in Christ can remain pure and unshaken. Baptism makes you marked men and women in this world. You are marked by the Crucified One; you bear His seal on your forehead, His mark of ownership. And the more that seal shows, the more the world will hate you.
And yet there is a great and wonderful promise from Jesus to all the baptized, who come through this great tribulation called life: “He who stands firm to the end will be saved.” We are to stand firm, to endure; we are to bear suffering with patience and hope, confessing Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour. To stand firm means to do what the Lord has given you to do, to bear your cross as a sign of life in the midst of a dying world, to follow Jesus to His death and into His life. St. James says, Blessed are those who endure trial, for when they have stood the test they will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him (1:12).
When the end comes, Jesus will give salvation to those who believe. In the end, when wars have run their course, when the earth has shaken one last time and famines have destroyed, the Lord will yet have His day. And in that day, those who have fought the good fight of faith will receive a crown of eternal life. That is the hope we have in Jesus Christ. That is the hope that will see us through to the end.
Our Lord Jesus paints a grim picture of the last days. He tells of wars and natural disasters and the persecution of the Church. This grim picture is meant to shake us awake from our spiritual complacency. In fact, Jesus paints this grim picture so that we can know where to find help, hope, and strength. For His foretelling of great trial and affliction also includes a promise of great relief: the one who endures to the end will be saved. Ultimately, the news for us is good, not sad. For our Saviour Jesus always has the best interest of His bride, the Church, in mind. He is the God-Man who entered this fallen world and who endured faithfully unto the end, even dying on a cross in the place of us sinners. Yes, He faithfully endured temptations, injustices, and suffering to save us from our sins, guilt, and shame and to save us for heaven. Jesus our Saviour endured unto death so that with faith in Him we might do the same!
“What sort of persons ought you to be?”—Jesus’ predictions of the end are designed primarily to answer that question. What sort of persons ought we to be? Well, our Lord tells us to be a people who endure in the faith. Are we going to make it? Will we be able to endure to the end? Will we stand firm until the day of Jesus’ coming? Not on our own, we won’t, we can’t. Not outside the Church. Not apart from Christ. But in Christ, we will stand firm in the faith. Oh, in this fallen world, we will suffer and we will have sorrows. But, in Christ, we will endure in the faith. We will endure, as members of His holy body, the Church. We will endure, as we live in His Word and draw life from His Spirit. We will endure, as we confess our sins and trust in Him to forgive all our sins. We will endure as our faith is renewed through our feasting upon the Lord’s very Body and Blood. Yes, we will endure in Christ, because He endured the cross for us. And enduring in Him we will be saved. For as St. Paul writes: if we endure, we will also reign with him (2 Timothy 2:12). And so, with our hearts full of faith in Christ, we can pray:
Abide among us always,
O Lord, our faithful friend,
and take us to your mansions
when time and world shall end.