A. B. Simpson, the founder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, once wrote, “The Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ is a distinct and important part of the apostolic gospel. The truth and blessed hope of the Lord’s return is the church’s great and blessed hope.”
During the 1970s through the early 1980s there was widespread discussion of the events that would lead to the return of the Lord Jesus, but it seemed to have waned since then. Much of the discussion of the end times then seem to try too hard to identify contemporary events with scriptural statements, and the speculation tended to try too hard to set a specific date or year. Yet the point of scripture is not to try to work out the time too precisely and exactly, but rather to live according to the promise of his return. Despite what tendencies to date setting and controversy over differences of understanding of the end time, the believer in Jesus Christ can continue with unshaken faith in the word of the Lord who promised his return. There is no reason to be distracted or dismayed by the circumstances which lead up to that time, to be concerned how others are thinking about it, but to continue in complete and utter confidence that he is returning. The point is that we are not to try to find our exact spot on the timeline of the last days, but rather to live each day as if we anticipated Jesus’s return that very day.
The Lord Jesus himself provided a long explanation of what would happen in the days that would lead up to his return from heaven to take up his dominion over the whole world. It is in the passage known as the Olivet discourse, the passage which is the bridge between the prophecies of the Old Testament that apply to the second coming and the prophetic passages in the New Testament epistles and the Revelation of Jesus Christ to John, the culmination of Biblical prophecy. In this teaching session shortly before the grand events of his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension, the culmination of his first coming, he gave the preview of what would happen in his second coming in glory. He gathered together strands of Old Testament prophecy and brought them together, to explain what would happen with events in history that would happened up to and after the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, and even more to the final intensification and domination of evil before the actual visible appearance of the Lord Jesus in glory before the entire world in his return.
Going back to what Jesus was actually saying will take us beyond ‘chart based’ eschatalogical teaching of a previous age, where there were too many attempts to plot out our moment in time on a map of history made from some rather iffy interpretations of some scriptures. We rather need to look to what all the scriptures say on the subject, not to try to pinpoint our place on a timeline on a chart. Rather, no matter in which age we life, no matter where we find ourselves on the timeline before his return, we can find in his teaching that Jesus left not so much as a set of special instructions for those who were to remain here until the last minute, but rather an abiding attitude of expectation for believers in all ages and in all places of looking forward to his return. And with that all those who truly believe in him and look forward to his return can agree that his expectation for us was not having right opinions about the order of events and the timeline, but rather a continuous faithfulness. The clear expectation of the Lord Jesus as for the believer who may live in the last few years, months and days before his return would be as faithful as any believer as in the years before, and that any believer who would die without seeing his return during his or her lifetime would remain as faithful during his or her life regardless of whether he or she lived until that moment. So with the realization of that expectation, let us turn to the first part of the Olivet discourse in Mark 13:3-13.
“And while he was seated on the Mount of Olives facing the Temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew privately privately asked him, ‘Tell us when these things will happen, and what the sign will be when all these things are about to come to their conclusion.’ And Jesus began to tell them, ‘See to it that no one leads you into error. Many will come in my name and say that, ‘I am the one!’, and they will deceive many. When you hear about wars and the rumors of wars, do not be disturbed. These things are destined to come about, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation and kingdom upon kingdom, and there will be earthquakes in many places, and there will be famines. These things are the beginning of the excruciating labor contractions. But watch out for yourselves. They will deliver you to councils and synagogues; you will be physically assaulted and you will stand before governors and kings for a witness to them – and it is destined that the gospel will be proclaimed to all the nations first. And when they drag you out and deliver you up, do not worry beforehand what you will say, but in that very hour it will be given to you as to what to say, because it will not be you speaking but the Holy Spirit. And brother will betray brother to execution, and a father his child, and children will rise up against their parents and have them executed. And you will be hated by everyone because of my name. But whoever perseveres to the end will be saved.”
So Jesus started out to speak about what would happen, and his first caution is this: The believer in Jesus Christ must take guard not to be led into error away from the truth of Jesus Christ. The sane appraisal of truth according to the scriptures will be the only guide through the confusion and deception that will come up0n the entire earth. But again, this is simply the same kind of steadfastness and discernment that Jesus has always expected of all believers everywhere and in every time.
The first warning Jesus gave was against false Messiahs who would arise. He warned his followers first of all neither to believe nor to follow them. They are counterfeits of the true Lord, and with this saying he lets his people know that there will be a series of pretenders who would come in the months and years to come. His warning was not to scare or intimidate but to give his people the information that they needed to avoid being taken in by the counterfeits.
Note the strong warning that Jesus gave first in verse 5: “See to it that no one leads you into error. Many will come in my name and say that, ‘I am the one!’, and they will deceive many.” This was a warning that began to come true in the years after he first gave it. In Jerusalem before its destruction by the Romans in A.D. 70, there were two deceivers mentioned in the book of Acts, Judas of Galilee and the Egyptian for whom the Roman centurion mistook the apostle Paul. Josephus, the historian who chronicled the fall of Jerusalem, reported the other false Messiahs that popped up as the Roman legions under Vespasian and Titus ravaged Palestine and burned and sacked Jerusalem itself. The apostle John could then write a few years later, “ . . . just as you have heard that the Antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have popped up . . .” (I John 4:18). And throughout the years since there have been many, many false prophets and false Messiahs who have arisen, so the warning of Jesus has been relevant for every age in which his people have lived.
The thing that we need to remain aware of, then, if we are the followers of Jesus Christ today, is that such deceivers still pop up all over the place, in many times and places. There are so many names of leaders of cults who could be put here, but the truth is that there will still be false Messiahs and false prophets coming until the day comes when the ultimate false Messiah, the Antichrist, makes himself known. Over history, there have been many political false Messiahs, such as Adolf Hitler and Kim Jong Il. But there have been also many religious leaders who have been unmasked as false Messiahs such as David Koresh, Jim Jones and Father Divine, and where there are the trappings of the personality cult within a church we can find that some of them will come from within the ranks of the professing church itself. They may start out as leaders who seem to have a solid grasp of the gospel and compassion and insight to help many, even out of poverty and the gutter, but eventually they begin to abandon the truth of scripture and arrogate to themselves the personal power and authority over the lives of their followers and demand the worship of others even as they claim Messianic titles for themselves. All these pretenders, though, are only foreshadows of the ultimate false Messiah, the Antichrist, and we can see him pretty clearly to be the first horseman of the Apocalypse, the final lie and counterfeit for which the entire unbelieving world will fall.
So then, the first consideration for the believer in Jesus Christ is to take these sobering words of Jesus to heart. He has already warned us that there will be false Messiahs, and that we are not to follow them. And in a world where the discernment of truth and error among believers seems to be getting lower, when people may throw up their hands in frustration and say, “How can I tell what’s what in this situation? Who am I to judge?”, the expectation of Jesus is still that his followers will not allow false Messiahs to deceive them. The false Messiahs of our age may hold up false hopes, false visions, false and grandiose visions and delusions of changing the world and bringing about a utopia on this earth – and each false Messiah also shares his own false eschatology – the false view of the coming kingdom – what it will be and how it will come. But certainly the expectation of Jesus remains that his people will not allow these false Messiahs to deceive them. And for this he provides his own Word and the opportunity to remain steadfast with him: “So then, as you have received Christ Jesus as Lord, conduct your life in him, as you are rooted and built up in him and are made stable in the faith just as you were taught and as you overflow with thankfulness.” (Colossians 2:6-7, Dale’s sight translation).
But even after Jesus gave his warning against the the false Messiahs, he gave another warning. He warned us that the upheaval and turmoil of this world is not to alarm us unduly as it continues onward. This world will continue to experience catastrophes in various times and places, and indeed these may be expected to accelerate as the end approaches. But the direction of Jesus is that what we see happening around us is not to give us undue alarm. Here is what he said again: “When you hear about wars and the rumors of wars, do not be disturbed. These things are destined to come about, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation and kingdom upon kingdom, and there will be earthquakes in many places, and there will be famines. These things are the beginning of the excruciating labor contractions.”
So after Jesus gave the warning not to be deceived by false Messiahs, and then he gave the warning not to take the turmoil of national conflicts and strife and natural disasters in themselves to be an indication that the end has come at that moment. Certainly his words mean, with the use of the metaphor of a woman beginning to experience the first painful contractions of labor, that these events are moving forward to the end, but not that they are themselves the indication that that moment is the moment of the end. The labor contractions themselves foretell the birth, but they are not themselves the birth.
This warning was well suited for the generation of believers in Christ which lived in the years following his crucifixion and resurrection in Jerusalem and its surroundings. There was certainly an application to them, since they saw famines, earthquakes and political conflicts in the days before the destruction of the Holy City and the Second Temple. Yet the witness of history is that they continued steadfast to Christ and their witness to him despite what they were seeing around them, and that they continued to win others to Christ in those times where it appeared that the end might happen at any minute if they looked just at the conflicts and disasters around them.
This warning also applies to our generation as well. There have been devastating earthquakes and famines in the days since I first came to Christ in 1974, as well as wars and revolutions around the globe. But even though we might wish that they were themselves the coming of the end when we were in their midst, we can know that Jesus does not want us to view them as an indication that the moment of the end has come. But certainly all these upheavals will give way to the final upheavals to take place after the appearance of the Antichrist – the other three horsemen of the Apocalypse, of war, famine and death. The indication is rather that there will the a clear intensification and acceleration of these upheavals which will follow the appearance of the Antichrist. And I think that this is very clear that there is nothing that we can do to prevent war and disasters entirely until Jesus returns – so while there might be particular wars and disasters that could be prevented, we must recognize that the elimination of war and other disasters as a fantasy. And in the meantime, we are not to be misled by the troubles in this world, since they will occur, but these conflicts and catastrophes are not in themselves the irrefutable signs of the end. Rather, we need to hold off any identification of the end until the Antichrist is openly unveiled to the world – and I think that as we go on in this passage and throughout the scriptures, we will find that for the discerning believer the Antichrist will be hard to misidentify.
Therefore, from what Jesus has already said, the knowledge of the truth is our firm safeguard against being deceived and against being fearful as the times wind down toward the end. The truth of Jesus and his Word will guard us against false hopes and fear and despair as history comes to its culmination.
First of all, the knowledge of the truth requires a heart commitment to the truth of Christ in the Word of God above all, above all human tradition and the rumor and rush of the crowd. The attitude of wise and discerning faith comes from the trust in the Word of God, the written scriptures of the God of the Bible, and all other attitudes, ideas, teachings, opinion pieces and blog posts must be tested by that – and I do fear that many professed believers are too shallow or superficial in their own knowledge of the scriptures to have wisdom and discernment in this age. Anything less will be shaky and unsure as the times become worse and the deceptions grow more seductive and severe. This heart commitment to the truth calls for us not to have a critical attitude toward our faith – that’s the wicked and arrogant advice that those who called themselves ‘Higher Critics’ (scare quotes intended) gave to undiscerning believers back in the nineteenth century. Rather, a person growing in his or her knowledge of the scriptures will find himself or herself looking at everything else in life with their mental and moral evaluative capabilities guided by the Word of God.
Just as much, the knowledge of the truth requires the constant prayer for the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, to lead us and keep on leading us into the truth of Christ. The humble prayer for the Spirit of truth to open the Word of God to us and show us the Christ of the scriptures will certainly be answered. And just as much, we need to seek for him to guide us away from the character flaws which keep us from receiving the truth of Christ. Like the ancient prayer, let us ask —
“From cowardice, which shrinks from new truth,
From laziness, which is content with half truth,
From arrogance, that thinks it knows all truth —
O God of truth, deliver.”
And so, the knowledge of the truth will keep us from falsehood as we learn, follow and hold to the truth of Jesus. While the truth ignored leads to enslavement to falsehood, the knowledge of the true Jesus will keep us from caving to the falsehoods that may come. As we learn the truth of God in the scriptures, it will enable us to recognize false teachers and Messiahs as they may come. And the truth of the scriptures will also keep us from being deceived by or attaching undue importance to the events of this world. Evil times will grow to their worst, to unparalleled depths, but they will only precede the arrival of the best of times, the unparalleled good that will arrive when Jesus Christ returns in glory to this earth.
So with all the warnings that Jesus has given of the turbulent times to come in this world, he has also given directions to his people as to what they are to do in the face of the difficulties and wickedness. In all situation the believer in Christ must stand firm for Christ. In all ages perseverance to the end is what he expects. In all ages he expects his people to remain firm and forthright in their confession of him as Lord and Savior before this world as it goes through its pangs of apparent death and contractions of coming life.
Even if the whole world goes in the direction of open and naked rejection of Jesus Christ, the believer in Christ must remain firm in commitment to Christ. Times of great unpopularity and outright persecution and martyrdom will come and go before the final, ultimate persecution and widespread martyrdom. The steadfast commitment to Christ in the midst of resistance to and suppression of the truth by a world which has been rejecting Jesus will mark the true, faithful disciple to Jesus, the one that Jesus chooses and accepts as part of his people for all eternity.
Jesus himself warned that there will be persecution throughout this world, but that the world will eventually be reached with the gospel. He said, “But watch out for yourselves. They will deliver you to councils and synagogues; you will be physically assaulted and you will stand before governors and kings for a witness to them – and it is destined that the gospel will be proclaimed to all the nations first.” We know upon his own word that the evangelization of this world will eventually be completed to God’s satisfaction. There will finally be no longer a time when anyone in the world can have the excuse of ignorance of the gospel.
So here by the word of Jesus himself we know that his church will finally succeed in the mission that he gave it. I’ve heard several rants by young pastors, where they’ve berated their helpless congregations sitting before them that ‘the church hasn’t reached the world,’ or changed and transformed the world. I’m not sure what convictions that they had about eschatology, though they were serving in a denomination that is supposed to be premillenial and believes in the literal coming of the Lord Jesus. But the word of Jesus here is not that one congregation, but that the entire church would eventually reach the world with the gospel. And his expectation is not that the world would be changed or transformed. Mark this carefully!! Jesus does not here give any assurance that his church will ever change or transform the world when the world has heard the gospel. Quite the opposite!
What will happen after the world has heard the gospel of Jesus is that the world will finally reject the truth of the gospel. The world will not be transformed or changed finally, but the world will reject the gospel finally. And then the world will give in to the final deception of the Antichrist. This will be the natural result of the rejection of the truth of the gospel – the world will foolishly come to the acceptance of the ultimate falsehood that Satan concocts for them. Jesus says more about this in this same discourse, but here is how the apostle Paul described what would happen at that time: “The lawless one will come with the empowerment of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders and with the deceitfulness of iniquity for those who are perishing, because they did not receive the love of the truth so that they would be saved. And because of this God sends them the working of error so that they would believe the live, so that all would be judged who did not believe in the truth but when it came to iniquity – they were perfectly fine with that!” (II Thessalonians 2:9-12).
In all times, though, God will use the times of rejection to continue the witness to the truth of his gospel, in the face of the worst opposition possible, both legal and illegal under the law of man. In those times witness will become the greater priority than survival – but in the times of crisis the people of God will not be left alone, to their own strength and wisdom. In those times God will give his people the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit to them.
Jesus gave this promise and direction to his people as to how they were to approach the times of witness before the world during the times of persecution: “And when they drag you out and deliver you up, do not worry beforehand what you will say, but in that very hour it will be given to you as to what to say, because it will not be you speaking but the Holy Spirit.”
This promise can be seen as it worked itself out in the times in the book of Acts when authorities tried to clamp down on the apostles of God and the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ. For Peter and John, Stephen and Paul, the times that they were brought before the civil courts and officials and religious courts and judges became platforms for their witness to Jesus, and the people who had them on trial found themselves in the awkward position of being on trial themselves. They were enabled by the Holy Spirit to witness to the gospel with forthrightness, yet without hate and disrespect, and to show love and the utmost courtesy and graciousness as they themselves displayed the countenances of angels.
This promise of Jesus continued throughout the ages, from the days after the apostles, during the many persecutions and martyrdoms in the Roman empire and elsewhere, as the gospel went forth from Jerusalem. Persecutions and martyrdoms continue, as they had behind the Iron Curtain, in Islamic countries, in India under the ideology of Hindutva, and in Nepal and Bhutan under militant Buddhism, but unshaken witnesses still continue for Jesus when they are brought before the bar of human justice. And the scripture does indicate that the persecution will become worldwide during the last years before the return of Jesus. Make no mistake about it – holding a view that the rapture will happen before the tribulation will never be any kind of insurance for any believer in Christ against having to stand for Christ in the face of earthly persecution and possible martyrdom. It has been said that many who held the view of the pre-tribulation rapture fell away in China after the Communist revolution because they believed that they would never have to suffer for Christ. Corrie ten Boom herself is reported to have said that she held the view of the pre-tribulation rapture before her imprisonment and the martyrdom of her sister and father under Nazi rule, but she came out warning against taking that view as any kind of personal comfort or insurance against suffering and dying for Christ, and indeed, she became a convinced believer in the rapture taking place at the end of the tribulation. Now certainly the issue of when the rapture takes place must always come down to what the scriptures say in themselves about the issue. So the warning here is against using this view as any kind of expectation that the future will not hold possible suffering and death if I follow Jesus with all my heart, and that a particular view of the rapture is not to be held because a person does not want to stand for Jesus and be faithful until death.
It’s noteworthy, then, that in the next several verses Jesus hits at three specific things about which I believe that many believers today have very little clarity.These things are what believers need to have clarity so that they can stand for Christ in the midst of this world, both in the present and as the coming contractions continue and deepen until the Lord returns.
The first thing that Jesus hits at is the need for a proper perspective on family loyalty in the time of persecution. He specifically predicts that betrayal to the pagan, God rejecting and Antichrist exalting state will come from family members and will result in the execution of innocent believing family members. Make no mistake about what he said: “ And brother will betray brother to execution, and a father his child, and children will rise up against their parents and have them executed.” While there has been a real concern for the salvation of and harmony among marriages and families
for the past generation, I’ve stated that there has been a real tendency among many professing believers and Christian leader to the idolatry of family and often to the idolatry of their own family. And betrayal will come from family members whom they may have pampered and idolized and for whom they may have made a number of little compromises of love and obedience to Christ.
So let’s consider what Jesus says in Matthew 10: 37: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and the one who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (See also a parallel passage in Luke 14:25-27). So when I witness the little compromises that Christian parents and leaders make for their children – how they tell a lie here to make that child look better than he or she is, or how they poison the well for a supposed rival to their children, or they ignore the blatant and growing selfishness and character flaws of their children – it makes me wonder how will they stand in the end if they have become habituated to putting their family above Christ and scripture by little and hidden compromises.
The second thing that Jesus says deals with our reception by the world as a whole, and it deals with the worldwide hatred that there will be toward believers before Jesus returns. Jesus gives the exact motive of the hatred of the world toward believers here, and make no mistake about why it will come upon believers: “And you will be hated by everyone because of my name.” And this also touches upon another tendency in our day and age: the idolatry of reputation among many professing believers. We tend far, far too much to think that there’s something wrong with us and what we may say if we displease the world without Christ. While this is sometimes the case with believers who are obnoxious or unnecessarily offensive with the way that they may express or live out their faith, I think that there are far fewer of these kinds of believers than there were in years past. I think that we have reacted far too much to the other extreme, to an oversensitivity to the slightest negative reaction to our faith from the world without Christ. Jesus has already made his expectation clear: “Whoever, then, acknowledges me before other people – I will acknowledge that person before my Father in heaven. And whoever denies me before other people – I will deny that person before my Father in heaven,” (Matthew 10:32-33). So this makes me wonder – how will anyone stand before the world that hates those who trust in Christ if they put avoidance of any negative reaction by the world without Christ above the open confession of Christ in their daily lives.
The third thing which Jesus clarifies is the issue of perseverance in staying loyal to the Lord Jesus. He said, “But whoever perseveres to the end will be saved.” Again, make no mistake about what Jesus expected from those who were expecting the salvation that he came to bring. He expected perseverance to the end. This does not mean that he did not anticipate that there would be failures, cowardice and outright betrayals, such as Peter, but that there would be perseverance to the end despite these failings of human nature. And with this statement Jesus touches upon something else that has been an issue in this day: idolatry of going through the motions of a set prayer to receive salvation. I have written elsewhere that there is definitely the need to receive salvation by telling God about it in prayer. There can be no mistake about it from scripture, that the first person to tell about one’s repenting of one’s sins and putting one’s faith in Jesus Christ for salvation is God himself! And that will take the form of some kind of prayer, whether someone gives out the words to someone who is ignorant and stumbling or that person has come to know enough to let the words flow from his or her heart to God! But, the idea of ‘Once saved, always saved’ has become for too many the idea that you are eternally safe if you simply repeat the prayer, regardless of how you live your life afterwards or even whether you continue to have a testimony to continued faith in Jesus as your Lord and Savior. I believe that, on the one hand, many believers are not taking the time to deal with family members and friends who have simply repeated the prayer but living outside the transforming grace of God and faith in Christ as if that person was as assured of salvation as a believer who was abiding in Christ and bearing fruit for Christ all one’s life. And, on the other hand, the idea that it’s just repeating the prayer that receives salvation has become so repugnant to so many who have seen so many have false hopes for themselves and for others who may have repeated a prayer but afterwards show little to no understanding of the scriptural gospel and no desire to follow Christ and live in his transforming power.
But I think that this simple statement of Jesus turns the emphasis around for us, that the final profession of Christ, especially in the face of a hateful world that may reward that profession with capital punishment, matters as much as the first profession of faith in Christ. The same Jesus who said, “He who comes to me I will not by any means cast out” (John 6:37) also said, “ . . . whoever perseveres to the end will be saved.” He obviously meant them both and never intended either statement be pitted against each other. So here’s what I think it comes down to. Of course Jesus will receive every one who comes to him in repentance and faith. And he expects those who comes to him in repentance and faith to persevere to the end in that profession of repentance and faith. That one statement from Jesus about perseverance to the end matters more from than a stubborn grasping of ‘once saved, always saved’ applied to a repeated prayer rather than a lifelong perseverance in the grace of God and faith in Jesus Christ. Just as much, we need to understand that perseverance to the end also means that Jesus expects falls along the way; after all, one of those he was speaking to was Peter. But I think that as we draw closer to the end that may be more of those who made shallow professions and cherished false hopes fall away from Jesus before a hateful world and those who have found the Savior continue with him to the end.
Whatever view of the tribulation a believer has, still a settled commitment to Christ and a consistent witness for Christ are binding upon all believers in all ages. The need will always be for a resilient life in Christ before the watching and often hostile world around us. If we are now in a time of relative ease, the time is now to continue with Christ, to be able to withstand the pressure of growing unpopularity and hatefulness from the world when it comes. And in whatever time or place we live in, there will be people and cultures which will be hostile and even murderous toward Christians. So the key is not to build and hide in our Christian enclaves and ghettoes and hope that the storms at the end pass us by, but to seek steadfastness in Christ now. Seek to be a solid witness now and not to remain lukewarm and silent. If Jesus is worth dying for before this world, he is worth living for now before this world!
So then, the warning of the prophecy of the Word of God, from the mouth of Jesus Christ himself, declares that there will be dark and difficult times up until the time that he returns. He is coming back! And that calls us to have our hope and joy in him now, and to become prepared now.
The first issue of preparation for the return of Jesus Christ is to have the issue of one’s own salvation in Jesus Christ settled completely. Be sure in your own heart that you have truly repented and believed in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior and that you have been born again of his Spirit. Seal your commitment to him in public baptism, and follow him in a life of faith, love and obedience.
Then, be prepared by keeping the truth of the Word of God alive in your own heart. That’s the surest defense against the false Messiahs that are here now and the ones who are to come. Depth and stability in the truth of Jesus Christ and an unswerving devotion to the Lord Jesus now means that you will not be taken for a fool by the c0unterfeits that are here now and later to come.
Finally, be prepared to stand for Christ as things get worse and worse for believers by standing as a witness for Christ now. Show no shame of him now and he will show no shame for you when he returns. Let it be known who you will serve, now and forever.