Viewing the Last Days Through the Arc of History
Topic: Eschatology Passage: Matthew 24:3–24:22
The Second Coming of Jesus Christ
Grace Community Church
March 10, 2019
We’re in a series called The Second Coming of Jesus Christ and we’re looking at what the Bible says about the last days and the second coming of Jesus Christ so let’s jump in by reading Matt. 24:3 and then praying.
The arc of history
To understand the scriptures about how and when history comes to an end, we need to place them in the context of history so we see the arc of history from a biblical perspective. To understand the last days of history we need to understand the first daysof history when God created the universe and the earth and all that was in it and then as the pinnacle of His creative work He created Adam and Eve and He created them to have dominion (or authority) over all the rest of His creation. Gen. 1:26 says,
26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
The Bible says God then stepped back to look at all He had created and saw that it was very good. Adam and Eve ruled the world and God ruled them and it was perfect. Then the devil in the form of a serpent tempted them to disobey God’s command by appealing to their pride: if you eat of the forbidden fruit you will be like God. Adam and Eve listened to the serpent, disobeyed God’s command, and ate of the forbidden fruit, and in that moment the trajectory of human history shifted massively. When Adam and Eve fell the earth fell too, so that all of creation is marred and flawed by their sin. Instead of mankind ruling the world as viceroys of God under the authority of God, we began to rule the world as our own little gods under the powerful sway of the devil. 1 John 5:19 says the whole world is under the control of the evil one.
The consequences were immediate and devastating: Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden of Eden, death entered the world, and their first son killed their second son out of jealousy. Living as our own gods makes a mess of our lives. So the impulse to rule the world in the name of God became an impulse to rule the world in the name of Man. To substitute God’s kingdom and rule for man’s kingdom and rule through a one world government flying under the banner of humanism and pride. We see that first emerge at the tower of Babel where all the peoples of the world started to erect a tower that would be a testimony of what man working in unity can accomplish. God scattered the peoples around the world for He knew that humanistic pride working in unity would be able to do just about anything they set their minds too – but with devastating results.
Because behind our dreams of self-rule, the devil is the puppet-master pulling all the strings as he seeks to recreate his own dark, God-less kingdom in this world. That’s his dream: to rule completely over this world as he rules the demonic kingdom. And we see the heart of Satan, who Jesus said is a liar and a murdered from the start, being expressed in human history. The consequence of our trying to be our own gods has been violence, murder, war, betrayal, lying, lust, human trafficking, child abuse, greed, stealing, cheating, jealousy, hatred, divorce, torture, and on and on. We make lousy gods and Satan is a brutal, evil king. The more completely he rules, the more earth will look like hell. God was putting a brake on Satan’s evil rule by scattering into tribes and nationalities with different languages so that we couldn’t build this one world humanistic government that would make it easier for Satan to have complete control over the human race.
Human history would have been nothing but a tragic spiraling downward to hell and destruction except God loved us too much to leave us in our rebellion and under Satan’s rule. At just the right time, God sent His Son Jesus as a man, but without sin. Jesus lived perfectly under the rulership of God and exercised perfect dominion over the world – casting out demons, healing the sick, controlling the winds and the waves with a word, loving good and hating evil. And then this perfect God-Man died on the cross, not for his own guilt, but to pay for our guilt so that our slates could be cleansed, our sin forgiven, and our hearts won over to Jesus’ rule. Jesus came to set up his kingdom not by force but by love. He wasn’t interested in people submitting to his kingship because they had to, he wanted subjects who submitted to him gladly and willingly. Jesus came to win our hearts and our obedience by his love.
So the arc of history has always contained several streams flowing at the same time:
- Stream One: Man’s desire to rule our lives apart from God ultimately leading to a one world government exalting Man and rejecting God.
- Stream Two: Satan’s increasing boldness in pulling the puppet strings of mankind, so our kingdom looks more and more like his kingdom.
- Stream Three: God’s ferocious judgment against the evil and depravity of mankind
- Stream Four: Jesus’ saving power, rescuing countless millions from the kingdom of darkness by transferring their citizenship to his kingdom of light.
When we come to the end of the arc of history we see all these four concurrent streams reaching their absolute climax: man will set up a one world government led by a man (the antichrist) who is more perfectly controlled by Satan than any human ever has been leading to a dark time like the world has never seen before as this world more closely resembles Satan’s evil kingdom than ever before. God’s judgment, long restrained by mercy and patience, will boil over in horrific world-wide catastrophes. And multitudes of people will turn to Christ and be saved, until finally Jesus will appear in visible glory and power to judge the world and save his people.
It’s important to understand the arc of history or we’ll look at the last days as a random, one-off set of circumstances rather than an escalation of what’s been going on from the very beginning of time. Let’s continue reading from verse 4 and as we do, notice that what Jesus describes as the last days doesn’t sound all that unique to the last days. It’s stuff that has been going on forever.
- Jesus says false christs will come in his name. Nothing unique there – history has been full of false messiahs.
- He says there will be wars and rumors of war. Again, nothing new. I read that out of the past 3400 years, only 268 years had no war going on in the world.
- Nation rising up against nation, kingdom against kingdom.
- Famines and earthquakes in various places. The NEIC locates 12,000-14,000 significant earthquakes around the world each year. So that really doesn’t pin things down for us much.
- Persecution – many of the first disciples were put to death for their faith and that has continued to this day.
- Falling away, false prophets, and love growing cold.
- The gospel being proclaimed throughout the world.
All these things have been going on since the beginning, so what good are they as signs of the end times? Jesus gives us the clue in verse 8: all these are but the beginning of the birth pains.
This tells us several things about the “signs” that Jesus gives us. In pregnancy, birth pains can start as early as 16 weeks into pregnancy and as the pregnancy progresses it’s not the nature of the contractions that change, it’s the intensity of the contractions. They start coming faster and faster, with less time between contractions, and more and more intensity. All of these birth pains going somewhere: the birth of a baby. The birth pains arn’t the goal, the birth is. The signs Jesus gives aren’t the goal, they are the evidence that history is going somewhere, history is laboring to give birth to something.
Remember, the last days aren’t this out of the blue, random set of circumstances, never before seen series of events. Rather it’s the climax of what’s been going on from the very beginning. It’s the intensity, not the nature of it, that will change.
The connection of direction
In light of that we might wonder how do we connect the end time prophesies in the Bible to what we see in today’s newspaper? I emphasized last week that we need to avoid any teachers who set dates for Jesus’ return or go crazy with their speculations about how this connects to that. But is it wrong to make connections, to compare what the Bible says will happen with what we see happening? What good are the signs if we can’t use them to assess the signs of the times? Is there a safe way to connect biblical prophesy with what we see going on around us without going off the deep end and hurting our credibility?
I suggest an important principle that I’m calling the connection of direction. Just as the birth pangs may be rare and light in the beginning, but are heading in a direction, the signs Jesus gives us – at least until the very end – are things that have been going on since the beginning because history has been going in one direction from the beginning. Let’s look at some examples:
15 “So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), 16 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 17 Let the one who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house, 18 and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. 19 And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! 20 Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath.
The phrase Jesus uses, “abomination of desolation” is a quote from the book of Daniel and it refers to the defiling of the Jewish temple. In 168 BC, almost two hundred years before Jesus was even born, Daniel’s prediction of the abomination of desolation seemed to be fulfilled when a Greek king named Antiochus Epiphenes entered the temple and slaughtered a swine on the altar. But Jesus obviously doesn’t think that was the ultimate fulfillment as he predicts its fulfillment is still in the future. In AD 70 the Romans, led by Titus, defiled the temple by entering the holy of holies with idolatrous images of Caesar on their armor and then destroyed it. Was that the fulfillment of Jesus’ prediction? It was a fulfillment, certainly, but I don’t believe it was the ultimate fulfillment, and the reason is, look at what Jesus says immediately after predicting the abomination of desolation:
21 For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. 22 And if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.
We can’t look at AD 70 and say it was the greatest tribulation the world has seen ever from the beginning of the world until now. And the entire human race was never at risk, but Jesus says if those days weren’t cut short, no human being would be saved. Jesus is describing a time worse than any time in history and so violent that if Jesus didn’t interrupt it by returning, we would annihilate the entire human race off the face of the earth.
What do we do with Daniel and Jesus’ predictions and these at least partial fulfillments? Do we say, Jesus got some of it right but overreached by predicting the end of the world? No, the answer is that as with many prophecies, there are multiple fulfillments, and there is a connection of direction. It’s going somewhere. But then we look and see that the idea of the entire world being destroyed and all humans being exterminated is something that would be impossible for any army or nation to do…until this past generation. Now, it’s not such a crazy idea. For the first time in human history, we could destroy the world with nuclear weapons. We’re going in a direction that lines up perfectly with all the Bible says will happen. The connection of direction.
Christians who lived in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s strongly believed Adolph Hitler was the Antichrist. He set out to exterminate all Jews. He planned the thousand year Reich (a devilish substitute for Jesus’ thousand year millenial reign on earth). In private he was a normal, even boring person, but before crowds of hundreds of thousands, people spoke of the hypnotic spell he held over them. It was as though another power were speaking through him. And at his peak, it seemed like no nation could defeat him, as it is said of the Antichrist in Rev. 13:4 “they also worshiped the beast and asked, "Who is like the beast? Who can wage war against it?"
Were those Christians being foolish thinking Hitler the antichrist? Does the fact that he was defeated and history went on as it always does prove that he was just a bad guy and there’s no such thing as an antichrist? Not at all. The connection is the direction. Hitler was not the antichrist, but he was an antichrist. He was a birth pang, a prototype of what Satan will do in and through a man he possesses. The fact that Hitler did not take over the world and all the biblical prophesies didn’t come to pass shouldn’t make us reject the validity of the prophecies, they should make us realize that all of history is going in a direction. It’s going to give birth one day to the ultimate last days and the real Antichrist and the glorious return of Jesus Christ.
One more example. The Associated Press reported two years ago about a company in Sweden called Epicenter that has begun implanting a microchip the size of a grain of rice in the hands of their employees. These microchips enable them to open doors, operate printers, and buy things from the company store with the wave of a hand. The information contained on these microchips is exhaustive – not just financial information but all a person’s health stats, where they’ve been, when they arrived at work, when they went to the toilet and how long they were in there – everything about a person’s activities and personal data is contained on that microchip.
Could this be the mark of the beast without which no one will be able to buy or sell? It may be, it may not be. The connection we can be pretty sure of is that it’s all going in a certain direction. We live in an age (unlike any previous age) where something could be implanted on a human which would make it possible for the authorities to monitor that person 24/7 and restrict them from buying or selling if they wanted to.
So we can read our Bibles and our newspapers and carefully make the connection of direction. The Lord gave us these signs so that 1) we wouldn’t fear when we saw these things unfolding. 2) we would be discerning and not buy into the world system, and 3) we would look forward with excitement because it’s all heading somewhere, history is laboring to give birth to something, and that something is the glorious return of Jesus Christ in power to judge the world and save his people.
Until he does, we should seek to live for Christ. To occupy until he comes. To share the good news of Jesus’ love with the people in our lives. We don’t know when Jesus is coming back, but we know he is coming back – maybe in our lifetime, maybe today, and we want to be found watching and ready. Living for Jesus, loving Jesus, and looking for Jesus.