The beginning of the birth pangs (Matt 24:4-14)

Yesterday, we saw Jesus predict the destruction of the temple. His disciples asked what they thought was a simple question (24:3 “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”) and Jesus gives anything but a simple answer. He seems to make a distinction between the first part of the question (when will the temple be destroyed?) and the second part (when will he return?). But in true prophetic fashion, those two horizons tend to merge. If you’re just joining us, it would be better to start with yesterday’s post to get the full explanation.

Today, we begin with the part of Jesus’ answer that relates to the destruction of the temple:

Matthew 24:4-8 Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you. 5 For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. 6 You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 7 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are the beginning of birth pains.

The first thing Jesus tells them is to take a chill pill, because there’s going to be plenty of bad stuff happening – but that doesn’t mean the end is here. They are merely the “beginning of birth pains.” Just like first-time expecting parents might freak out at the first sign of pre-labour; but the old hands know that pre-labour can often last half a day, and that there’s plenty of time to get to hospital. Mostly.

These birth pains include the appearance of false messiahs: indeed, the period leading up to the fall of Jerusalem in AD70 had plenty of messianic pretenders. Particularly amongst the zealots, whose constant uprisings led by charismatic leaders were what ultimately led to the Romans getting fed up and destroying the city.

The birth pains also included the usual stuff that people interpreted as bad omens: unrest among nations (wars and rumours of wars) and unrest in the earth itself (earthquakes, such as the one that destroyed Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis, sometime in AD60-62, were seen as nature’s way of warning that something big was about to happen in history).

But Jesus tells them to see these as just the beginning of birth pains. It’s not the end of the age just yet. Although it is the beginning of the process that will ultimately result in the end of the age. The destruction of Jerusalem and its temple was an act of judgement symbolised the ending of the old covenant after Israel rejected her messiah. As a result, the message of the kingdom was given to all nations, which must happen before the end comes (v14, which we’ll look at in a minute). It’s going to be a long labour.

And a difficult one, too, as Jesus points out next:

Matthew 24:9-14 “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. 10 At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, 11 and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. 12 Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, 13 but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.

The time leading up to the fall of Jerusalem was a difficult one for Christians, involving significant persecution. (Just read the book of Acts, if you’d like evidence; or consider how all but one of the apostles died a martyr’s death.)

Jesus also warned about internal threats, as persecution would tempt people to turn away. (Epistles like 1 Peter, Hebrews, and Revelation were written to believers facing this kind of situation.)

And these verses may not be limited to just the AD30-70 period. They may refer to the persecution faced by Christians throughout history, as they testify to Jesus and bring his message of the kingdom to all nations.

The most important thing to note here is  found in verse 14: “the end” will not happen until the gospel of the kingdom is preached in the whole world. Although you could see that as having happened in a symbolic sense by the time Paul makes it to “the ends of the earth” (i.e. Rome, the heart of the Gentile world), it has not yet happened in actuality; we still await this testimony to reach all nations.

So what?

So how does this relate to us?

Firstly, this is of historical and theological interest. It reminds us of God’s plan of salvation that was first offered to Israel. And when they rejected it, it was offered to the rest of the peoples of the world:

Acts 28:28 “Therefore I want you to know that God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen!”

The destruction of the temple, then, was an act of judgement on God’s people who had rejected their own Messiah. It’s no coincidence that Jesus’ cleansing of the temple (Matt 21:12-17) happens just before he curses the fig tree (Matt 21:18-22) which then withers and dies.

Nor is it a coincidence that in the parable of the wedding banquet (Matt 22:1-10), when those who are invited reject the invitation, the king goes out and invites everyone in off the street to join in the banquet. But concerning those who were invited but refused, it says:

Matthew 22:7 The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.

Jewish rejection of the kingdom led to both the ingathering of people from all nations (that includes us!) and the destruction of their temple and city.

Secondly, this tells us not to get hung up on “signs of the end times.” It reminds us that those kind of bad omens (wars, earthquakes, persecutions, Trump presidential campaigns) happen all the time. They happened back in the 60s AD as the “beginning of the birth pains” when Jerusalem was about to fall. They’ll keep happening today. Don’t think that every time something bad happens in the world, that’s a sign that The End is imminent. People have been saying that for millennia. (And have been wrong each time.) Later on in this chapter, it says that the end will be totally unexpected, again dissuading us from speculation.

In fact, the only clear “sign” we’re given of the approaching end is that the gospel message will go out as a testimony to all the peoples of the world. So if you’re keen for Christ to return and everything to be put right, get out there and tell people about Jesus. Get involved in the work of God’s kingdom and the announcement of God’s rule as king. Particularly to those people groups who are still, as yet, unreached.

I don’t get particularly worked up about “the end” being near when I hear of Russia invading Ukraine, or Iran’s nuclear programme, or the latest with Israel and Palestine. That stuff’s been going on for centuries.

What gets me more excited is when I see people packing up their life to learn a new language and culture, in order to bring the message of the kingdom to a people group that does not yet contain disciples of Jesus. When I see the list of unreached people groups steadily becoming smaller each decade. Because that’s what will tell us that Christ’s return is near.

Come, Lord Jesus.

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