I want to start by being honest. I have to say, Matthew 24 and Matthew 25 are tough passages. Matthew 24 in particular is one of the hardest in Scripture because it is dealing with eschatology or the study of end times. Chapters like Matthew 24 and 25 make me regret, for a moment, the decision to preach expositionally chapter by chapter through the entire Bible. To tell you the truth, I wish I could skip this chapter because it addresses themes such as the second coming of Christ, the end of the world, the rapture of the church, topics that have caused theologians and scholars centuries of debate and the jury is still out.
I listened to a 2.5 hour debate with John Piper, who served as the moderator, and 3 other seminary professors about the end times. You listen to each of them and they are brilliant, their arguments are based on Scripture and after 2.5 hours, I was still as confused as ever. Each person made such a compelling case that if you didn’t hear the other two, you’d be convinced. But then you listen to the next guy and now you are equally convinced of two divergent positions. Then, the third guy is just as convincing. Three options and they all sound equally good and valid. It’s maddening.
I apologize that I am still undecided about many of the details regarding the Last Days. Whether it’s my laziness to study in depth or the insufficiency of my intellect or my lack of spirituality to hear from God definitively about these topics, I am not in a position yet to say where I stand. Maybe in a few years when we get to 1 and 2 Thessalonians and eventually Revelation, I will have a clearer picture. And who knows? Perhaps Jesus will return before I am decided in which case, there is no more need to speculate because we’d all know for sure.
Until Jesus returns, we live in the shadows. We see but a poor reflection in a mirror. We don’t see clearly. There is so much we don’t understand. And my first point for today is this. It’s okay not to be confident or convicted about some things, actually many things, when it comes to spiritual life.
Dr. Albert Mohler, is an American theologian and president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. And Dr. Mohler divides theology into tiers. He calls it “theological triage.” Triage is a medical term often used in the emergency room. Mohler describes how doctors need to make intelligent and prudent decisions based on the importance and urgency of the patients in the room. For example, someone with a broken finger must wait to be treated longer than someone who has a gunshot wound to the head. Obviously, if your brain is hanging out of your skull, you need immediate attention and I’m sorry, the guy with a broken finger might have arrived several hours earlier, but he is going to have to wait.
If you liken theology to triage in an emergency room, then we have to acknowledge that certain issues are like a paper cut compared to other issues which are life and death, like a heart attack. You have to triage or sort out issues into categories according to priority.
Mohler prioritizes theology into three different levels. You have Tier 1 issues. These are life and death matters. If we lose this this battle, we might lose the patient so to speak. The Tier 1 theological issues are the non-negotiables. They are the fundamental articles of our faith. They constitute the essence of Christianity. To fudge on these issues is to deny the Christian faith and it’s like having a stroke physically and becoming brain dead. Muddy the waters here and your salvation is in jeopardy. Examples of Tier 1 issues include: the incarnation of Christ, the deity of Christ, the full humanity of Christ, the Trinity, the authority of Scripture, and justification by faith.
There are other Tier 2 issues that are less serious, meaning, we can differ on these issues but it’s not a matter of spiritual life and death. The Tier 2 theological issues are those which Christians can disagree on, but disagreements here can produces boundaries and differences which determine whether or not you fellowship with them. Here, you find the differences in denominations and congregations. Examples of second-level issues would be women serving as pastors, church government, the meaning and mode of baptism, and the Lord’s Supper.
Finally, Tier 3 theological issues are matters in which Christians disagree but these have relatively little consequence. You can have differences and still maintain close fellowship with the person with whom you disagree. Tier 3 is analogous to having a scraped knee while Tier 1 is a gunshot wound. Some examples of Tier 3 matters include: views of eschatology (end times), social drinking, and interpretation of certain difficult texts.
Mohler warns of two ditches to avoid: 1) theological liberalism and 2) fundamentalism. Liberalism is the refusal to admit that Tier 1 theological issues even exist. Liberals treat Tier 1 doctrines as if they were merely Tier 3 in importance. The inevitable result is doctrinal ambiguity where you are not sure of anything because nothing is pinned down.
Fundamentalism, on the other hand, tends towards the opposite error. Fundamentalism is the belief that all disagreements concern Tier 1 doctrines. Thus, Tier 3 issues are raised to Tier 1 importance, and in my humble opinion, Christians are wrongly and harmfully divided over issues that ought not to divide.
You may differ with me on whether it’s okay to listen to U2 or how the rapture will unfold, but these issues are Tier 3 matters. Yet we must not differ on Tier 1: things like the person and work of Jesus Christ, His Word, the Trinity, a proper definition of the gospel, and justification by faith.
Fortunately, today, we are talking about Tier 3 issues. So I am not 100 % sure of my own position and that’s okay. I am still a Christian by the grace of God. I may say something and you may disagree with me and that’s okay. You may still be Christian, even though we disagree. Just kidding. I may be post-tribulation, pre-millenial and you may be pre-trib, post-mill and that’s okay. We can’t be sure about Tier 3 issues until Christ returns.
With that said, let me start by giving some overall structure to the debate and I’ll end with what I know definitively. Chapters 24 and 25 of Matthew are known as the Olivet Discourse because this sermon from Jesus occurred on the Mount of Olives. The Mount of Olives is frequently mentioned in the New Testament (in places like Matt 21 and Matt 26) as the route from Jerusalem to Bethany. It’s the place where Jesus stood when he wept over Jerusalem.
After Jesus preached in Matt 24-25, he returned on the night of his betrayal in Matt 26. The Garden of Gethsemane lies at the foot of the Mount of Olives. In Acts 1, it is recorded that after the resurrection appearances, Jesus ascended to heaven from the Mount of Olives. So the Mount of the Olives is a very important place.
On this Mount, Jesus talked about the end of the world in the context of a second coming. With the second coming of Christ, there are 3 groups that are mentioned: 1) the nations, 2) Israel, and 3) the church.
I want to start with the first group, the nations. There is judgment against the nations who fail to recognize Christ as the Messiah.
1 As Jesus left and was going out of the temple complex, His disciples came up and called His attention to the temple buildings. 2 Then He replied to them, “Don’t you see all these things? I assure you: Not one stone will be left here on another that will not be thrown down!”
To explain the utter destruction that will happen in the last days, Jesus points to the temple in Jerusalem. And just like the temple is going to be destroyed to the point that not one stone will be left, this is a picture, a microcosm, of what will happen to the world and in fact to the entire cosmos. The whole creation, the universe will go through utter destruction before the new heaven and the new earth is established.
We need to connect the dots a bit. Let’s skip ahead to the end of the chapter. Jesus says an odd thing in v33-34.
33 In the same way, when you see all these things, recognize that He is near—at the door! 34 I assure you: This generation will certainly not pass away until all these things take place.
What does he mean by this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things take place. 2000 years later, we’re still here. Did something happen in the generation of those who were with Jesus in the first century? There was. Jesus gave this sermon around AD 32-33. And in AD 70, less than 40 years after Jesus spoke these words, the Romans stormed Jerusalem. And although the commander in charge, Titus, who later became the emperor, commanded his soldiers not to desecrate or harm the temple, one of them threw a torch into it.
The historian Josephus claims that 1.1 million people were killed during the siege, the majority of whom were Jewish. The slaughter included men, women, children, old and young, insurgents and priests, those who fought against the Romans and those who begged for mercy. Exactly as Jesus had prophesied, not one stone remained upon another. Today in Jerusalem, all that is left is the Wailing Wall.
This is a small scale portrait of what will happen to the nations that don’t believe in Jesus in the end times. In addition, Jesus likens the end of the world with the end that God brought about in Noah’s day with the Flood.
37 As the days of Noah were, so the coming of the Son of Man will be. 38 For in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah boarded the ark. 39 They didn’t know until the flood came and swept them all away. So this is the way the coming of the Son of Man will be…
What was it like in Noah’s day? In Genesis, we see a few things that I think parallel the days in which we live. During Noah’s day, there was a population explosion. Abnormal sexual practices abounded. Violence filled the earth. And the thoughts of man, we read in Scripture, were evil all the time.
Sounds a lot like our context, doesn’t it? A great flood wiped out the entire world except for those in the ark. In Noah’s day, there was warning after warning and the people could see with their own eyes Noah building the ark, but they mocked him. They ignored him. They carried on with their lives. The warnings, the signs were given, but the warnings were not heeded. Jesus says, it’s going to be the same way in the last days. People will dismiss the signs.
In the last days, there will be plenty of signs. By my count, by reading the first part of Matt 24, there will be a minimum of 7 signs signaling that the end is near. The first sign will be, v4-5, the proliferation of many false teachers and false prophets claiming to be God’s Anointed, the Messiah. The second sign will be wars and rumors of war, v6-7. Nation will rise up against nation and kingdom against kingdom. Third, there will be famines and earthquakes. The fourth sign–there will be an increase in persecution. This will lead to Christians being hated and Christians taking offense because they are hated. Fifth, because of the proliferation of false prophets, many will be deceived. Sixth, lawlessness or wickedness will multiply. Seventh, the love of many will grow cold.
How are these signs evident today? Let me give you a few facts. Did you know that there has been more death due to war in the past 20th century than there was in the previous 19 centuries combined? WWI casualties are estimated at over 37 million and WWII casualties are estimated at over 60 million, which at the time was 2.5% of the world population. And now we live in an age under the threat of extinction by nuclear weapons. Signs during the end times include wars and rumors of wars.
Another sign of the end is the rise of famines. Here’s another fact. The population of the world hit 1 billion in 1857. From the time of Adam all the way to 1857 to reach the first billion. Did you know that since then, we add a billion people every twenty years? It’s shocking isn’t it? We now have over 7 billion people on planet earth. It’s getting crowded and as you would expect, the hardest hit areas are in the developing world.
There is a new measurement that came out a few years ago called the Global Hunger Index or GHI. The GHI ranks countries on a 100 point scale, with 0 being the best score (“no hunger”) and 100 being the worst. The higher the score, the worse the food situation of a country. GHI values less than 4.9 reflect “low hunger.” Values between 5 and 9.9 reflect “moderate hunger.” Values between 10 and 19.9 indicate a “serious” hunger problem. Values between 20 and 29.9 are considered to be “alarming.” And values exceeding 30 are an “extremely alarming” hunger problem.
There was a list of 57 countries with the greatest levels of hunger. Dominican Republic, Vietnam, Indonesia, among others had a GHI numbering in the teens. Countries with GHI in the twenties include: Rwanda, India, Bangladesh, among others. Countries with a GHI in the thirties include: Haiti (an island in the Caribbeans), Eritrea (located in the horn of Africa) and Burundi (located in East Africa).
Signs include wars and famines. What about persecution? In two millennia of Christian history, about 70 million Christians have given their lives for the faith. They were martyred solely because they were a follower of Christ. Of these 70 million, 45.5 million were in the last century. 65% of the total number of martyrs occurred in the past 100 years. We don’t often think about persecution in this country. But these stats remind us that persecution did not end in first century Rome. If anything, we see persecution on the rise.
Wars, famines, persecution. These and other signs are all around us if we have the spiritual eyes to see them. Like those who lived in Noah’s day, you and I are end times believers. Noah spoke of coming rain. We speak of the coming reign, R-E-I-G-N, the coming reign of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. And just as it was in Noah’s day, so it will be in the days of Jesus’ second coming. Despite the signs, people will not repent and will not place their faith in Christ. The nations will be judged accordingly.