What We Already Can See
How can anyone prepare someone properly for something they have no idea of? It would be like trying to teach a recently discovered tribesman in Papua New Guinea what a rocket flight to the moon is about. There is an anomaly, though, in this example. To be in a position to meet that tribesman and try and explain to him what a space rocket is one needs to come from the modern age. And through meeting one from a different civilisation he would have to be open to the idea that there is still something more that's new out there. He must be wondering who you are and how you got there. Still, to convince him that there are even more phenomenal things he hasn't yet seen, is another thing than the wonder he has from meeting you.
The disciples were in a similar situation. They had met the Lord Jesus - in fact they had been with him for three years. Three years which certainly opened their eyes to who Jesus was and what He could do. But they hadn't really suffered. There was always food somewhere - sometimes miraculously so. None of them had been thrown into prison and tortured and murdered for following Jesus. The world itself was much as they had always known it - there were no great natural disasters and the Romans still ruled in their thoroughly stable way - their `Pax Romana'.
On one occasion when Jesus had warned them that He had to go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, Peter showed his horror at such a thought by taking Jesus aside and beginning to tell Him off for such a thought (Matt.16:21ff). Do you remember, though, how Jesus answered him? Was it in the way of accepting that Peter didn't know any better? Quite the contrary! Jesus knew that by not accepting the way of the cross Peter was doing the work of someone else. And so it was that Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Out of my sight, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”
By continually reminding them of what He had to go through not only did Jesus prepare His disciples for His suffering and death and resurrection. He was also teaching them about what they would be going through in their own lives as His followers. This is why the apostle Paul could write later that he bore the marks of Christ, since as part of His Church he was carrying his own cross (2 Cor.4:10).
When they needed to know why, later on, the disciples would remember. As on one occasion Luke notes of Peter, “Then I remembered what the Lord had said...” (Act.11:16).
The Beginning of the End
The key to the verses 4 to 8 is in that interesting and very vivid phrase of verse 8: “All these are the beginning of birth pains.” “All these” refers to the four separate and yet completely related man-made disasters of the verses 4 to 7. It is a list that seems extensive enough, and certainly one would have to agree that it was bad enough, and yet our Lord chooses to call it simply “the beginning” of birth pains.
So what are these “birth pains”? The word used is the same as that referring to a woman who has the pains of contraction come suddenly upon her. While we know that the end of the pregnancy birth is close, the contractions always send us into a spin! The beginning of birth pains means the baby due - now! While it is quite well know that a woman can have a false labour, or else labour pains that go away for a while, labour pains themselves tell us it's time to get one lady off to hospital very quick!
The birth pains as they begin are usually different than the contractions at the end. While no two experiences are the same, it can generally be said that the initial indications are a general sense of strangeness, or tingling. It is certainly obvious that something is different.
Mind you, as with a woman experiencing the initial onset of labour we can easily dismiss it. I well remember my wife trying to convince me on the way to hospital, while expecting our first, that she was fine now - and could she please go home!
This is where the Lord draws in this first series of signs. They are general and pointing to something about to happen. It is the beginning of the end:
The first of these four man-made disasters are those who “come in my name” - the `false messiahs'. They are inevitable given the extent and influence which Christianity will come to have. Wherever there is any perception of power being held within a certain group someone else will try to copy it. And what could be more so considering that this is the greatest power of the ages - the power which the devil and all his hosts do their uttermost to get hold of. Examples of false messiahs come readily to mind. There are such David Koresh, Jim Jones, Sun Myung Moon and Charles Manson, to name a few. And each generation before us has produced its own crop of those claiming some kind of special connection to the divine, and to Jesus Christ in particular. Casting our net further scripturally - is this possibly the anti-christ of 2nd Thessalonians in mind here? In a general way yes he is, and if we understand the anti-christ to reflect the spirit that is constantly at work against the church, yes again. What is being particularly focused on here, however, is the world at large, and the signs we see out there - not that which attacks the Church in particular.
This is shown also in the second type of general sign - the wars and rumours of wars. That was not the case then historically because of the stability of the Roman Empire, but it would be on them soon enough. As indeed it has been with us constantly ever since. In fact, one could well ask what kind of sign this is since it is an almost daily occurrence. It seems nothing special anymore. The sign element, though, is really in that it will be happening during this last phrase. If anything, the exhortation is there to really ignore these things and keep Christ in focus. Throughout what are terrible deeds that man does to man the Lord's word assures the disciples in the first instance, and other believers in their own times, that He is working out His will. That's why He says not to be alarmed. How different that is to how Christians over the age have drawn out much significance from the wars of men over many centuries - and more recently the first and second world wars, and the Clayton's war of the Cold War (the war which wasn't a war!). Especially when those wars have had something to do with Palestine we have seen many Christians go into quite a dither about it. And quite unnecessarily!
Next are listed two disasters: One directly man-made - that is famine - and the other a so-called natural disaster - earthquakes. Still earthquakes are also just as much a result of our sinfulness, because it only came as a result of Adam's sin in the Garden of Eden. There are many examples of each of these throughout history to illustrate this. The end of the 1990's have seen some devastating earthquakes - from Turkey to Taiwan to Mexico and back again - and all within a few weeks!
So far the general list of tragic events, a big picture which anyone can see. Though now Jesus brings the unfolding panorama of history a lot closer for His followers. We cannot miss what's happening.
The End of the End
It is all coming a little closer to home now. It wouldn't be that long before the disciples themselves go through the fire of persecution and even martyrdom for the sake of the gospel. It seems a long way, however, from the kind of character the disciples were showing now and would also show when they fled the Lord upon His arrest.
Still, it would be through such weak and inadequate people that the Lord would bring His good news to the farthest ends of the earth. That this would be so for the many generations to come of believers is shown by the Lord's differing use of personal pronouns. For instance, when He uses the second person pronoun, “you”, the disciples are indicated. Then when He uses the third person pronoun, “he”, the believer of a future time is usually understood.
But everything the Lord relates in these verses is common to both - the disciple and the later believer. Thus when the disciples had words and terms spoken to them by Jesus that they were familiar with, we need to know them too. Take the Greek verb translated “handed over” in the N.I.V.. It is the same word used to describe the imprisonment of John the Baptist earlier in Matthew 4. It is also used to show what Judas would do against Christ by the word “betraying”. The same “betraying” word appears following its use as “handing over” in verse 9, as “betraying” in verse 10. The parallel is brought out again of the believer's life alongside his Master. It is this following of Christ which will be reviled the world over.
To further help guide the Church in this coming time, Jesus attributes a number of characteristics to those who are false believers in this time. Not only will they work to offend the faithful, they will also turn them over to the persecuting authorities. On top of that Jesus mentions their “hate” - the strongest emotion most opposite to love
Further to this false prophets arise, naturally working to distract the Church from the only Word, and actually appearing to successfully do this. Then in what seems to be a parallel to the hate of verse 9 “the love of many grows cold.” Church history proves this to be so, with distinct periods when believers seemed few and far in-between, or if they were there in number their action was little shown. Such a time as preceded the Reformation. Such a time, some would suggest, as we are in now. A time when the Church has so much become an alternative entertainment centre, forever seeking the latest and greatest thrill. What a contrast to the times of genuine revival where the simple and spiritual worship of God's people really did please God.
Verse 13 makes the future of the believer in this lifetime to be very grim. As it is! Anyone following the Master shouldn't expect a different road in his or her own life. But verse 13 is at the same time the highest note of confidence. He will be saved! The Lord is keeping His own.
And furthermore, the Lord is adding to His own. Until the full number of the elect come in the gospel will be proclaimed throughout the world. Interestingly, the same root word used for martyr is used in the word `testimony'. This is a testimony to the nations - through saints who give their all. Once the Lord has completed this witness to Himself upon the earth times up!