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Jesus' Prophecy of Consummation of the Kingdom, Part 2: The Destruction of Jerusalem

Series: Matthew

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Jul 25, 1999

Matthew 24:15-23

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If you have your Bibles I’d invite you to turn with me to Matthew chapter 24. We began last time looking at this great passage. It's one of the six long sermons of the Lord Jesus recorded by Matthew. It happens to deal with the issue of the end times or to use the technical term, eschatology, which just means the study of the end times, or the study of the last things. In this great passage we saw last week, especially in verses 4-14 of Matthew chapter 24, that Jesus gives a forecast of the history of His people between the two advents, between His two comings, between His first coming and ascension and the second coming, and He spends much of His time in verses 4-12 telling us what are not signs of His second coming, and then He gives us something very important to think about in those last two verses. And so as we looked at that passage last time together two over-arching messages shown through.

One was that all of our thinking and opinions about the end time need to be subjected to the Scriptures and especially to our Lord Jesus Christ. The disciples, when they asked the questions that they did in verses 1-3 of Matthew chapter 24 showed that they had some misconceptions about how things were going to be. And the Lord Jesus Christ taught and used Scripture to correct their misunderstandings. If they had not gone to Him, they would have been incorrect in their thinking, and so it's important for us to subject our thinking to the Lord Jesus Christ, not only in the issues of the end times, but in every other area of life.

Another important message that we learned from that passage was Jesus' emphasis on enduring, on persevering. In fact, that's going to be one of the grand themes throughout Matthew chapter 24 and 25. That His people need to be ready to persevere to the end. That's one of the most important responses that we can make as Christians to the Bible's teaching about the end time. A lot of times you ask yourself, what is the practical purpose of the bible's teaching about the end time? Well, we know from Jesus' own application that one of the practical purposes is to motivate us to endure, to not lose hope, to hang on, and to persevere to the end. That's one of the great practical lessons. So having said that as background, let's turn then to Matthew chapter 24 beginning in verse 15, and we'll read actually all the way down to verse 24. Hear God's holy word:

Matthew 24:15-23

Our Lord and our God, as we come to this passage in which You set forth important teaching, not only about the events which were subsequent to our Lord's ascension, but also about concerns which stretch far into the future. We ask that You would open our eyes to behold Your truth for our lives. We are tempted when we come to a passage like this to think of it as a puzzle to be solved and to miss the important exhortations and challenges in it for us right now. Help us not to miss those, O God, by the grace of the Spirit. We ask it in Jesus' name, amen.

Last week we said that realistic expectations are essential to the success of any venture, and we gave some examples of those and perhaps others came to your mind. When a person is preparing for serious surgery, often times a doctor will sit down and tell him, now, I’m going to do this, and we're going to do this, and when you wake up you're going to feel this way, and it's going to be about a week before you get out of the hospital and then the recovery process is going to take about three months. Now why, when you go into something like that, does the doctor get so explicit? So that you will know to be prepared for what is ahead. If you think that you're just going to pop in and pop out and be right back to work the next day, you're going to be sorely disappointed when three months later you still are dragging around from the effects of the anesthesia and the surgery. And so the doctor and the health professionals attempt to prepare you for what to expect. This is going to happen, that's going to happen. Because realistic expectations are important for you going through the recovery process with hope and with energy.

You know, we do the same thing when we're giving people hard directions to get to a difficult place. You know, we may say now, look, I’m going to tell you to go so far and look for this, and you're going to think that you went too far, and you're going to be tempted to turn back and look for the turn off, but don't do it. You keep going until you get to such and such a point, and then you turn. Trust me. Why do we go into those sorts of details? In order that they will be realistically prepared for what may seem to be an overly long time before they make their turn, or a too quick time before they come to the turn. We're trying to prepare them so they'll have realistic expectations in that venture.

The Lord Jesus Christ is doing that for the disciples because we know that the disciples' logic went something like this. We get this hint from what we see in Matthew 24:1-3. They thought, hmm...Jesus has just said the temple is going to be destroyed. If the temple is going to be destroyed, that must mean the end of the world is coming very, very soon. And if the temple is going to be destroyed, and the end of the world is coming very, very soon, that must mean that Jesus is coming again to reign with power. And if Jesus is coming again to reign with power very soon, and He has told us that we are going to reign with him and judge the world as kings, then very soon we are going to be kings ruling the world with the Lord Jesus Christ. And the Lord Jesus wants these disciples to know that far from reigning, they're going to be suffering in just a very short time from when He leaves them to ascend to the heavenly Father. He's trying to prepare them for what they are going to go through as His apostles. And so He's attempting to explain to them in this whole passage what they are to expect in the world and from the world between His two comings.

Now, as we said, in verses 4-14, He gives them a general overview of what goes on in between those two comings. Today He will give more specific instructions on the things that are going to immediately happen in the generation of His disciples. Before we look at that, I’d like you to turn back to four verses at the beginning of chapter 24, and look at the four important exhortations that He gave to the disciples out of the passage that we studied last week. If you look at verse four, verse six, at verse 13, and verse 14, you will see these four important truths. First of all, in verse four, He calls on His disciples not to be deceived. He doesn't want them to be misled. They are not to preoccupy themselves with signs of the sort that He's going to list from verse four to verse twelve. But instead, they are going to be on guard, He says, against false prophets because there are going to be people claiming to be the Christ, He's saying you be on guard, don't be deceived. Then in verse six, He goes on to say, don't be disturbed. Don't despair, don't be frightened, don't be downcast by the things that are going to happen. You think that in a few days you're going to be reigning and judging the world with me in my glorious kingdom. In fact, in a few days you're going to be undergoing the beginnings of a tremendous tribulation. Don't be disturbed by that. Don't be frightened by that when everything around you unsettles you. Don't be disturbed by that. I told you about it ahead of time. It's all part of the Father's plan and you misunderstood in the first place. That's what Jesus is saying in verse six. Then in verse thirteen, He goes on to give actually a word of assurance when He says all those who endure will be saved. Now He says that not to say, you better endure, although He's going to exhort them to do that later on. He's saying look, when you endure, I promise you that salvation awaits you. He's reminding them of the blessing which awaits all those who remain faithful to him to the end. And so He's saying it's worth it to endure because the full blessings of my salvation await all those who persevere even in the midst of these trials. And as we said, one of the grand messages of these two chapters of this whole sermon is the message for Christians to persevere and to endure, for He who stands firm to the end will be saved.

And then in verse fourteen, He says something very interesting. He says that the kingdom is going to be proclaimed to all the nations. Now, why does Jesus say that? Well, at least for this. He's letting them know it's going to be a long time before the coming that they are thinking is going to happen so quickly actually comes. The gospel of the kingdom is going to be proclaimed to all the nations. It's going to take a little while, men, before I come again. And so I want you to wait for Me like I’m coming back tomorrow. But I want you to be ready for the long haul, because the gospel is going to be proclaimed to the nations. And so with those four words He prepares His disciples to practically deal with the situation that they're going to find themselves in.

Now today in our passage, here in verses fifteen and following, Jesus specifies His instructions for His followers in Jerusalem who were about to undergo a severe testing. But in the process He also teaches us truths which are relevant and important for Christians in all generations. When you pick up a passage about the end times, whether it refers to things far off, or whether it refers to things that have already been fulfilled, you are tempted to think, well, that doesn't apply to me because I didn't live then and I’m not going to live then. But the word of god is profitable for instruction. And this word is just as applicable to us as it was to the people that Jesus primarily spoke it to. So let's look at several things together. In fact, there are five things in this passage that I’d like you to see today.

I. Even the Christian trials are in accordance with the plan of God revealed in His word.

In verse fifteen you'll see the first one. Jesus, in verse fifteen, indicates that the siege and destruction of Jerusalem is a fulfillment of prophecy. Look at His words. When you see the abomination of desolation, which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet standing in the holy place, and then you had this parenthetical comment by Matthew, let the reader understand. What in the world is going on there? Well, Jesus is telling the Jewish Christians of His generation to whom He is preaching and those that will hear His apostles preach, He is saying to them that the Roman siege, which is going to occur around Jerusalem in about thirty years after the time that Jesus has spoken these words, that that siege is a fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy. Yes, Daniel’s prophecy about the abomination of desolation, and you'll remember that Daniel uses that term about four times in His prophecy. Yes, there had been a previous aspect of fulfillment of that prophecy when Antiochus came in before the time of Christ and sacrificed an unclean animal on the altar.

But Jesus is saying there is a more ultimate fulfillment of that promise which is going to occur in just a few years after I ascend. And so when Matthew says, let the reader understand, He's saying, let the reader of Daniel understand that Daniel’s prophecies about the abomination of desolation are ultimately fulfilled in this event which is going to occur in the destruction of Jerusalem. In other words, Jesus is saying to these Jewish Christians, when you see the armies of Rome surrounding Jerusalem, when you hear of them coming, and when you see the imperial banners planted here, as it were, on holy ground, and when you see on those banners the declaration that the Roman emperor is divine, and when your heart feels like the very holy ground of Jerusalem has been blasphemed by the claims of a mortal man to be the divine god, then you know that the fulfillment of prophecy is in place. And then He's going to tell them in a few moments something that they need to do when that event occurs. But He's telling them that this event when the Romans lay siege to Jerusalem and then eventually destroy Jerusalem, its occupants, and the temple is a fulfillment of what Daniel had already prophesied. The Jews hated those Roman banners which proclaimed the emperor to be god, to be divine. They thought it blasphemous for them to even be in the presence of devout places and people, so you can imagine the horror of the Jewish people as those battle banners were planted in Jerusalem itself. And eventually the temple itself was razed by the unclean hands of the roman legions. At any rate, Jesus gives that word for those Jewish Christians who are in Jerusalem.

But that word is also relevant to us. Because even the Christian trials that we face are in accordance with the plan of God revealed in His word. The word of God warns us for trials, just as Jesus warned those Jewish Christians about trials, and so trials in this life do not disprove the sovereignty of God. They prove the sovereignty of God. If the Bible tells us we're going to face trials as Christians, and we don't, then the Bible is wrong. And so, when you do face trials, you're seeing a fulfillment of the faithful word of your Lord in scripture. Troubles prove god's truthfulness.

By the way, this passage also shows us how some prophecy works as it's set forth in Scripture. When you look at verses 15-23, you can tell that Jesus is recapitulating. He's going back over some of the ground that He has already covered in verses 4-14. How do you know that? Because in verse fourteen, He got to the end. Now, once you get to the end, there's no place to go. But there's a verse fifteen. So where's He started off? He started right back at the beginning again, and often times in biblical prophecy you will see the prophet not simply repeat the same thing. You'll see him go back over the same ground again in order to teach you another truth. And so you're seeing actually Jesus teach you another principle of biblical prophecy here. At any rate we learn from this passage that for Christians our trials are in accordance with the plan of god, and He's revealed it to us in the word. So we shouldn't be discouraged when we come into trials and tribulations.

II. Christians must be ready to be persecuted for righteousness’ sake but are not to court conflict.

In verses 16-18 we see a second thing. There Jesus tells these Jewish Christian believers in Jerusalem that when they see the abomination of desolation, they are to flee Jerusalem. And so we learn as believers from this passage that Christians need to be ready to be persecuted for righteousness sake, but we are not to court conflict or martyrdom. I'll leave that thought for a minute and come back to it. But understand what Jesus is saying here. Jesus is saying when you see those Roman battle banners surrounding Jerusalem, don't do like the Jews are going to do. We know that when the Romans came to lay siege to Jerusalem literally hundreds of thousands of Jews came from the countryside, and they went where? Right into Jerusalem. Jerusalem was swollen with millions of Jews literally when the Roman army got there. Jesus is saying to His followers, now when you see the Roman army coming, you do the opposite. You leave Jerusalem. You see, the Jews thought God will never let Jerusalem be destroyed. Jesus is saying they have a sore surprise coming. So you, My followers, you flee Jerusalem when you see the abomination of desolation coming. You get out of it. You get away. So while all the Jews are fleeing into Jerusalem, you, My followers, you seek a way out. Now, that was a message of great practical importance because of the terrible slaughter which was inflicted upon Jerusalem by the Roman armies.

And you can imagine how important this particular flight of the Christians was going to be for missions. God is displacing all these Christians from Jerusalem, and He's flinging them all over Palestine. And what's He going to use it for? The spread of the gospel. And so God, even in His wisdom, turns something that is terrible into something which is a blessing for many who would hear the gospel through these faithful believers.

But we learn something through this passage, too. I mentioned that Christians need to be ready to be persecuted for righteousness' sake, but we're not supposed to court that conflict. We're not supposed to court martyrdom. This is very important because many Christians in the wake of Jesus' ascension and the wake of the persecutions in the Roman empire actually exalted martyrdom to the point that they actually tried to get people to martyr them so that they could be numbered against those who had given their lives for the faith. But isn't it interesting that Jesus gives the practical instruction to the Christians in Jerusalem—don't sit there and be slaughtered with everybody else. Get out! Run away! Flee the destruction! Spread the word somewhere else. So Jesus makes it clear that though we are to be ready to be persecuted, we're not to seek it. Though we are to be ready for conflict, we're not supposed to entice it or encourage it. We're to use wisdom and common sense as we approach our conflict with the world.

III. Christians must not be surprised at the intensity of our trials and must pray for God’s strength to endure.

Then in verses 19-21 Jesus says a third thing. He tells these believers in Jerusalem to brace themselves for hardship and to pray for their endurance. These verses make it clear that Jesus is speaking about the coming destruction of Jerusalem in His generation, and they show us the practical counsel that Jesus has given for those Jewish Christians. They need to understand how intense this persecution is going to be. In fact, we will say something about that in a few moments. But I want you to note Jesus' tender-hearted love and concern for His people in these verses. If you'll look at verse 19 and verse 20, Jesus addresses very practical concerns that let you know that He is thinking about what His people are going to be going through. He says, you know, this is going to be very hard for mothers who are expectant and mothers who are nursing. So the Lord Jesus in His love for His people is even thinking about what His people are going to have to go through in a time of trial and tribulation. He goes on to say that He's concerned because you may have to flee on a Sabbath day, and perhaps some of the Jews will resist you in that flight. And He's concerned that they may have to flee in the winter, not because it was so cold, but because in the winter in Judea the wadis were filled up, the streams were swollen with water because it's rainy. And when you get to a wadi, a stream, it's hard to cross. And we know that many of the Jews who tried to escape the Romans were caught of one side of a swollen stream and slaughtered by the Roman armies. So the Lord Jesus shows concern for the difficulties that His people are going to have to go through. And yet again, we learn in this passage that Christians ought not to be surprised at the intensity of our trials. We need to pray for god's strength to endure. So He tells these Jewish Christians, you be ready for the kind of trials you're going to face, and you pray to god that you will endure. All of us need to be preparing for trials and praying that god will give us the strength to endure. We must not expect flowery beds of ease in this life.

If you have your hymnals, take them and turn to hymn 573. There's a wonderful hymn called, Am I a Soldier of the Cross? Number 573. It's well-known to many of you. Look at the second stanza and following: must I be carried to the skies on flowery beds of ease while others fought to win the prize and sail through bloody seas? Are there no foes for me to face? Must I not stem the flood? Is this vile world a friend to grace to help me on to god? Sure, I must fight if I would reign. Increase my courage, Lord. I'll bear the toil, endure the pain, supported by thy word. The Lord Jesus is saying to these Christians in Jerusalem, you pray that God will strengthen you that you may endure. And He's saying to us, you pray to God that He will make you ready for the day when He's going to test you because God doesn't call us to heaven on flowery beds of ease. The way the Lord grows us is through testing.

I can remember my father being invited on various occasions to camp out. His response was always invariable. "Son, I camped out all over the South Pacific with the United States Marine Corps in the Second World War, and I never plan to camp out anywhere but the Hilton again." Now maybe all of us are wanting the Hilton, too, but God is calling us to be ready to camp out even in the midst of trials and tribulations, and to pray that God would help us to endure as we do.

IV. Christians must never forget God’s special watch care over them.

Then in verse 22 we see a fourth thing that I would mention. Here Jesus reminds believers in Jerusalem of god's special providence over His chosen people. His special providence over His elect. Look what He says: Unless those days had been cut short, no life would have been saved, but for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short. Josephus tells us that there was never a destruction like the destruction of Jerusalem. When the Romans laid siege and destroyed the city, something like 4 or 5 million Jews were killed. The siege was so intent that Josephus also tells us that mothers ate their children for lack of food. It was horrendous. And the Lord Jesus wants His disciples to know just how hard it is, but at the same time He also wants them to know that God has put a limit on the duration of that trial because of His love for His people. Now there is such an important lesson in that for us, because Christians must never forget God's special watch care over them. God is saying in the way He works out the very history of nations, He always bears His children in mind in what He does. He's saying that He even limited the amount of the destruction of Israel for the sake of the people that He loves.

Now you may be sitting back today and thinking, now my only goal in life is to get my child to sleep through the night right now. Or my only goal in life right now is to make sure my teenager doesn't turn out to be a hoodlum. Or my only goal in life right now is to pay the bills and to keep being a Christian. And what is all this end times and eschatology stuff have to do to help me today? Well, it has everything to do with helping you today. You see, if you don't believe in God's special providence and watch care, which Jesus sets forth in this glorious passage about the end times, you're missing one of the great encouragements of the Christian life. To know that Christ, as He rules the world, rules it with you in mind is one of the most phenomenally humbling and encouraging thoughts that will ever cross your mind if you'll stop to meditate upon it. And it's right here in the middle of a passage about the end times.

V. Christians must be careful not be be deceived by false christs.

One other thing that I’d like you to see in this passage. You'll see it in verses 23-24. Jesus warns the believers in Jerusalem against false messiahs. There would be many false messiahs in the time of the destruction of Jerusalem, and Jesus for the second time in Matthew 24 warns His people not to be deceived. And again we learn as Christians that Christians must be careful not to be deceived by 'false christs'. This is a major warning from the Lord Jesus Christ. He's deeply concerned that these Jewish Christians may be misled by the many, many people who came and presented themselves both before and after the destruction of Jerusalem and claim to be the messiah. And He's saying, don't be deceived by them. Remember we said last time, Jesus says if you have to sit down and think, hmm.... I wonder if that's the messiah, it's not him! Because when the Messiah comes it's going to be universal and unmistakable. You can't miss it. And so He's saying don't be misled.

Now again, you say to me, but how's that practical to us? I'm not going to go follow a David Koresh. I'm not going to go follow a Jim Jones. I'm not going to go follow a Sun Yung Moon. I'm not going to go follow some rabbi who claims to be the Messiah. I'm not going to follow after a man who claims to be the Lord Jesus Christ come again. Well, maybe you won't. I hope you don't. I do suspect that that is less likely from folks who are present at First Presbyterian Church on a regular basis. You know a little bit about the Bible. You've been taught it for many years. You've had faithful Sunday school teachers. Your parents have taught you the truth. But, but is there not also the danger of following someone who twists what the Bible says about Christ? There are a lot of people today who are giving us a very different version of Jesus in their teaching than you find in the Scripture. And if you follow that kind of Jesus, you're not following the Christ of the Bible.

You know, one of the beautiful things about our membership process here at First Presbyterian Church is you are asked the question, "Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior of sinners and do you receive and trust in Him as He is offered in the gospel?" So it's made clear that you're not just trusting in 'any old Christ' that you think up. You're trusting and believing in the Christ who's offered in the gospel. That's so important for us to understand that it is the Christ of the scriptures who saves, not the Christ of our imagination. There are many people who are wanting to reinvent Christ, accommodate him to the spirit of the age. But Dorothy Sayers warned us a long time ago that the church's job is not to accommodate Christ to men. The church's job is to accommodate men to Christ. And yet there are many who want to change Christ to make him more palatable and if we follow after that kind of Christ, we're following after a false messiah. And if we're following after a false messiah, we're doomed.

I was at a conference of evangelical theologians many years ago, and in the room hearing a paper delivered was Carl Henry, one of the great defenders of the inerrancy of Scripture. And this evangelical was giving a paper in which he argued that it really didn't matter what you believed about Jesus Christ as long you trusted in Him. Dr. Henry was absolutely stunned. He asked the man after the meeting, "Do you mean that I can believe anything I want to about Jesus Christ and as long as I trust in Him, it doesn't matter whether I deny His lordship, I deny His divinity, I deny that He is the only Savior?" And the man said, "Yes, that 's right. As long as you trust in Jesus, it doesn't matter what you think about Him. It doesn't matter what you believe in him." Dr. Henry said, "What was the baptismal confession of the early Christian church? 'I believe that Jesus is the Christ. Can you deny that and still be a Christian?'" The man had no answer. There is no answer except you must believe on Christ as He is presented in the gospel if you're to be a Christian. It's very easy even in this day and age to be misled by false christs, and Jesus' words of warning to those Jewish Christians 2000 years ago are just as relevant to us today as they were when He first spoke them. May God bless His truth to our hearts. Let's pray.

Our Lord and our God, we thank You for the truth of Your word, and we pray that You would bring it to bear in our daily living, for Christ’s sake, amen.

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