Mark 13:3-23 “As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, ‘Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?’ Jesus said to them: ‘Watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in my name, claiming, “I am he,” and will deceive many. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains. You must be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them. And the gospel must first be preached to all nations. Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. When you see “the abomination that causes desolation” standing where it does not belong – let the reader understand – then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let no one on the roof of his house go down or enter the house to take anything out. Let no one in the field go back to get his cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that this will not take place in winter, because those will be days of distress unequaled from the beginning, when God created the world, until now – and never to be equaled again. If the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would survive. But for the sake of the elect, whom he has chosen, he has shortened them. At that time if anyone says to you, “Look, here is the Christ!” or, “Look, there he is!” do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and miracles to deceive the elect – if that were possible. So be on your guard; I have told you everything ahead of time.'”
Throughout the last 2,000 years the church has passed through some terrible periods, dark ages of superstition when the gospel itself almost disappeared, persecuting times when the smoke from burning bodies has blown over the landscape, long and bloody wars, natural disasters when earthquake, plague and famine have killed millions. During those periods this chapter has been a wonderful consolation to God’s people. “The Lord warned us that it would be just like this,” Christians said to one another. No doubt in the churches of the coastal strip surrounding the Indian Ocean during the last four weeks following the tsunami’s devastation Christians have read this chapter and gleaned from it the instruction God intends.
1. BEFORE TIMES OF JUDGMENT CERTAIN SIGNS WILL BE OBSERVED.
There are two different events that Jesus is speaking of in this chapter. The first is the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70; the second is the actual end of the world. The first mini-judgment is a foretaste of the second maxi-judgment. The same righteous God is operating in both in the same fallen world by the very same principles. When there is a plague the scene of suffering, grief and death in one single household is but a sample of what is taking place in thousands of others. A bomb destroys one house and wreaks fearful devastation; a thousand bombs that fall on a thousand homes wreaks the same kind of destruction but everywhere. The scale is simply vaster, but the same kind of destruction is being displayed. The build up to the Great Day of Judgment looming before us will be the same as the build up before the apostles in the judgment that fell on Jerusalem. In other words, the signs before the year 70 will be the same signs marking the end of the world, but in that day it’s going to be on a cosmic scale – “But in those days, following that distress, ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory” (vv.24-26). However, the same signs will be there for all to see before that event as occurred in the time before the year 70.
We could say it like this, that the Lord was speaking here to his apostles about the next forty years in their lives, and he was describing the circumstances in which they would have to work for Christ and glorify God. The coming of the kingdom of God was not going to set up a Utopia. Since the year 70 AD there have been almost 50 periods of forty years, and every single one of those periods has been characterised by the kinds of troubles he talks about in this chapter. However, there is going to be an intensification of these same troubles in the time building up to the end of the world. I know that that is not the whole biblical picture of our age. We can look at other parts of the Bible and we can see times of great refreshing and growth and spiritual awakening prophesied. Doesn’t Romans chapter 11 speak of a future time when God will accept old Israel again and that will prove to be “life from the dead” for the world (Roms 11:15)? “God is able to graft them in again” (v. 23), he says about the Jews, and so you have a picture of unprecedented persecution and natural disasters accompanying spiritual blessing and reviving. Why should that not be the case? That is the picture in the book of Acts and in the life of the apostle Paul. Divine blessing and persecution go hand in hand.
So the Lord is giving to these four fellows and to all his church a realistic picture of what lies ahead. If you don’t know what you’re getting into when you start something you’re very liable to discouragement when you meet a pattern of difficulties. Prior to the battle of Waterloo the Duke of Wellington called together his generals and he told them his plan. “We’ve got an international army many of whom have never fought one another before. We are up against one of the greatest offensive generals in history, Napoleon. His army is made up of veterans from his previous campaigns. We are slightly outnumbered; Napoleon has 77,000 men and 246 guns and we have 73,000 men and 157 guns. Our men are relatively inexperienced. My plan is this, that we let him pound us all day long and we will soak up the punishment. My only goal for the first hours is that we hold together. I know that Marshall Otto von Blucher, the Prince of Bismarck, is on his way and he will arrive in the afternoon. With his fresh troops we’ll then have enough men to take on Napoleon and win.” Wellington made his plan known to his generals and so to the men, and thus they were ready for the pounding all day. They expected punishment and that’s what they got until Bismarck arrived. That was the turning point and the battle was won – though not until after 6.30 that evening. So today we have the monument on Pen Dinas hill dominating Aberystwyth erected to honour Wellington’s victory. All the soldiers were told what to expect and so they bore it bravely.
That is what Christ is doing here in Mark 13. Winston Churchill learned this lesson well. Britain stood alone in 1940 resisting the Nazis, and Churchill sought to rally our nation with some brilliant speeches. He didn’t do this by telling us it was going to be a pushover. Quite the reverse; “I promise you only blood, sweat, toil and tears,” Churchill said. He adjusted our expectations to comprehend how costly the fight was going to be. There was going to be a high price to pay to take on the Nazi power, and to stand alone at that time in the free world.
So what sort of signs are we to expect before the fall of Jerusalem and also before the end of the world?
i] Deceivers and false religions will abound.
That is where Jesus begins: “Watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many” (vv. 5&6). And he returns to the theme: “At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or, ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and wonders to deceive the elect – if that were possible” (vv.21&22). It happened before the fall of Jerusalem. The church father Origen tells us of a man called Dositheus who claimed he was the Christ foretold by Moses. Josephus the historian tells us, “Now as for the affairs of the Jews, they grew worse and worse continually, for the country was again filled with robbers and impostors who deluded the multitudes. Yet did Felix catch and put to death many of those impostors every day.” You see how important Christ’s warnings were to the early church. Men with dynamic personalities would appear and announce that they were prophets sent from God. If that were the case there’d be no need for anyone to flee to the mountains. Flight would be a sign of unbelief if you had God’s servant, his Messiah, in your midst. “We can overthrow any power in the world.” They’d quickly erase Jesus’ words of warning from their memories and go chasing after this or that false teacher. “Don’t believe all you hear!” warned Christ. “Don’t let them have any grip on your life at all. Cling to me, and cling to my teaching. Don’t listen to those men. Listen to me. Do all I command you to do.”
We would also expect from Jesus’ solemn warnings that subsequent history would be dominated by movements in which men claimed to be the actual vicars of Christ, his very substitutes and representatives, on earth. We would expect a movement like Islam to develop, at whose heart would be a man who claimed that he was a divine prophet sent from God. We would expect cults to be continually emerging, especially from a new country like America, and later from Korea and soon China, gathering millions of people who followed the prophet’s teaching. We should expect new gurus to be appearing almost out of nowhere with huge rallies of people filling Olympic Stadiums hanging on to their leaders’ every word. It seems to us that these followers have been conjured up out of nothing and from nowhere. We plod on for years teaching the truths about Jesus with so little impact on our culture, but a prophet rises up like Karl Marx, or Sigmund Freud, and for a time the whole world seems to be falling down at his feet. That is exactly what Christ told us to expect.
ii] Creation itself will seem to be groaning in the form of terrible earthquakes and famines.
That is what the Saviour says (v.8) and that is what actually occurred before the fall of Jerusalem. There was the fearful famine in Judah mentioned in Acts 11:28. Then there was a season of earthquakes just previous to the year 70 in Crete, Smyrna, Miletus, Chios, Samos, Laodicea, Hierapolis, Colosse, Campania, Rome and Judea. The city of Pompeii had been severely damaged before that time in an earthquake on February 5 in the year 63. Thus it has been through the history of the world, and we have seen such an earthquake with shocking clarity in recent weeks. Men cannot control the rainfall or the movement of the continental plates. If ever our creaturely impotence is manifest then it is in such places at such times. We have witnessed this devastating display of earthquake’s destructive power and that too is an earnest of our futures.
iii] There will be warfare.
“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom” (v.8). How unadorned those words are, but what terrible pain is described here. Not long after Jesus said these words wars filled Judea and other parts of the Roman Empire. In Rome itself four emperors came to a violent end in eighteen months. There were uprisings against the Jews in Alexandria and in Seleucia when 50,000 were slain. In Caesaria a battle between Syrians and Jews brought death to about 20,000 Jews. We have seen far worse! My generation, born just before the Second World War, has lived during through the cruelest wars in the history of mankind. More people have been killed in warfare during the 20th century than in all the previous centuries put together. Today there is an awareness of the spread of nuclear weapons, and we find it hard to think the unthinkable about the future – let alone speak it. But he who cannot lie said that before he returned at the end of the world, “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom” (v.8).
iv] The fourth sign is the persecution of those who follow the Saviour.
The Lord warns his apostles at length about this. He really prepares them for it saying, “You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them. And the gospel must first be preached to all nations. Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.” (vv.9-13). You need go no further than the book of Acts for evidence of the fulfilment of this prophecy. The gospel is preached and almost immediately the apostles are put in prison. Stephen was stoned to death. James was killed by Herod and there was great persecution against the church in Jerusalem. Wherever the early missionaries went there were riots, and lashings and prison.
This prophecy of the Lord Jesus is being fulfilled as we speak. I get papers sent to me each week with details of thousands of Christians being persecuted, imprisoned or killed for serving Jesus Christ today. Let me select just two, a couple of people, unknown to any of us, but our brothers in Christ, who while we are meeting here lie in stinking jails, away from their families. The first comes from Egypt. We are told that photographs are now available of an Egyptian Christian jailed without charges for 19 months who has become emotionally disturbed. Also he lost his vision in one eye from torture and lack of medical treatment. His widowed mother is speaking up for him.
His name is Hany Samir Tawfik, 28, and he has been continuously jailed since March 2003. After being deported back to Egypt from Saudi Arabia on June 15, 2002, he was arrested at the Cairo international airport upon his return and detained for 52 days. Tawfik was then re-arrested by police seven months later because he refused their demands to spy on an evangelical Christian pastor, so Tawfik’s family and church sources said. Despite direct appeals by Tawfik’s mother to Interior Minister Habib el-Adly, authorities refuse to release him or make public his alleged ‘crimes.’ Tawfik’s mother said that prison authorities had taken away his Bible and destroyed it in front of him. “He said they told him he was a ‘special’ case, so they had been told to give him extra suffering,” she said
Then there is another news item from Colombia in South America where we are told of a first-year theology student called Luis Alberto Vera, 24, was arrested on November 26 on charges of firearms trafficking and aggravated theft. His colleagues, at the Biblical Seminary of Colombia in Medellin knew immediately it was a case of mistaken identity. Nevertheless, Vera, married with an infant son, faces a long and potentially expensive legal battle to clear his name. His case is far from isolated, Colombians say. “Before, you were innocent until proven guilty, but now it’s the opposite. You’re guilty until proven innocent,” said an evangelical minister who asked not to be named. Special anti-terrorism laws and a growing network of anonymous informants have increased the risk of ordinary citizens being falsely accused of terrorism. Ricardo Esquivia, of the Evangelical Council of Colombia, says that across Colombia, at least 30 pastors and church leaders now are imprisoned because of anonymous “tips” from informants. I could have chosen from hundreds of sadly typical cases. I simply select two quite ordinary examples to show you that 2,000 years after Christ warned his disciples that this would happen it is happening more than ever in the history of mankind. So all this has to happen before Jerusalem is demolished and on an international scale before the Lord returns.
v] The fifth sign is the ‘abomination that causes desolation.’
The Lord Christ gave them this mysterious sign; “When you see ‘the abomination that causes desolation’ standing where it does not belong – let the reader understand – then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains” (v.14). You will notice that the words ‘abomination that causes desolation’ are in quotation marks. They are a reference to the book of Daniel and two verses in particular, the first being in chapter 11, verse 31, “His armed forces will rise up to desecrate the temple fortress and will abolish the daily sacrifice. Then they will set up the abomination that causes desolation,” and then also in chapter 12, “From the time that the daily sacrifice is abolished and the abomination that causes desolation is set up, there will be 1,290 days” (Dan. 12:11). Imagine the man Christ Jesus peering through the chapters at the end of the book of Daniel, studying them, grasping their meaning and here applying this Scripture to his disciples. Daniel was speaking about pagan armies invading Jerusalem, prohibiting the regular temple sacrifices and in their place setting up this abomination that causes desolation. It’s been suggested that the reference is to some pagan idol, an image of a god, being set up in the midst of the Lord’s house. This would have had multiple fulfillments in Jewish history, for example, in 168 BC a pagan conqueror named Antiochus Epiphanes erected an altar in the temple to the pagan god Zeus over the altar of burnt offering and sacrificed pigs on it – what a desolating abomination in Holy Jehovah’s temple! He wanted to Hellenize the Jews, that is, he wanted to make them all Greeks, and he went for it sparing no one who stood in his way. That abominable action of Antiochus Epiphanes would have been one such fulfilment of Daniel’s prophecy.
Then there was another in the year 40 when the emperor Caligula sought to put up a great statue of himself in the temple and that very plan was another abomination to the Jews; it did not succeed. Later in the year 68 actual Jewish zealots themselves committed various atrocities in the temple, and a clown named Phanni was installed as high priest. But when the Romans entered the temple two years later bearing their various ensigns (the carved trophies that each regiment carried with them), that idolatry would have been a specially humiliating abomination to the Jews following their defeat. Josephus tells us, “The Romans, upon the burning of the holy house itself, and of all the buildings round about it, brought their ensigns to the temple, and set them over against its eastern gate; and there did they offer sacrifices to them” The temple and the city itself were utterly ruined a few days later; the abominable Roman idolatry in the temple did indeed cause desolation.
It seems to me that today we are being warned by Christ to expect this kind of offence against the Christian faith. That it will reemerge, and it is going characterise the time before the end of the world. The apostle Paul in fact writes to the Thessalonians about this taking place in his second letter to them, “Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by some prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from us, saying that the day of the Lord has already come. Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshipped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.” (2 Thessalonians 2:1-4). However this prophecy is yet to be fulfilled we know that at its heart there will be some desolating abomination centred on the Lord Jesus – the tabernacling of God with man. One wonders are we being softened up in readiness for such an eventuality by events like the Jerry Springer opera having been recently shown on BBC television?
So those are the five different kinds of events which are going to mark the period before destruction comes to Jerusalem and before the end of the world. But you sit there and you think, “My biggest concern right now is that my baby gets into some sleep patterns and I get a decent night’s sleep once in a while.” Or you say that your goal is to pay your bills and keep on being a Christian, or that your longing is that your teenager doesn’t fall in with the wrong crowd and start taking drugs. “What does all this ‘end times’ stuff have to offer to me?” It has everything to do with helping you today. If you don’t believe in God’s special providence and the watchful care which Jesus is setting forth in this chapter, then you are missing out on one of the great encouragements of the Christian life. To know that your Saviour Jesus Christ, as he rules the world, rules it with you in mind, that he is concerned with difficult times of pregnancy, nursing mothers and rushed journeys in the cold of winter. That is one of the most phenomenally humbling and encouraging thoughts that will ever cross your mind.
2. WE ARE FOREWARNED TO BE PREPARED FOR THE TIME OF JUDGMENT.
The sermon of Christ’s in Mark 13 is not a threat from a tyrant, but a gracious warning from a loving Saviour. His purpose is pastoral as you can see from what he says:
i] “Watch out that no one deceives you;” (v.5). The nation is full of deceivers. Newspapers tell harrowing stories of people who have lost everything to conmen. The phone rings and we are told by a deceiver that we have won fabulous prizes. The men who sell drugs speak of excitement and happiness which the white powder will bring: “One quick fix will do it.” The white slave traders lure young women from eastern Europe with deceptive tales of glamour and modelling jobs in the West. Deception abounds, but the worse kind of deception is that which promises communion and union with the true and living God. Mankind’s religions are his worst crimes. “Watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he’ and will deceive many” (vv.5&6). These are words that the ecumenical movement refuses to face up to. Their wish is that we all accept one another’s beliefs. They organise weeks of prayer for ‘unity’ to bring together what God has wrested asunder. They put both truth and error, deception and righteousness, the devil and Christ on the same level. They need weeks of public debate for truth. Didn’t the Saviour often spoke of false prophets, and wolves in sheep’s clothing.
“But we are told not to judge others,” someone protests. When the Lord Christ told us, “Don’t judge!” then he was warning us not to be gripped by a spirit of superiority and carping criticism and self-righteousness. He wasn’t urging us to embrace every guru and new prophet that popped up on the religious stage. As the old warning says, “if it’s true then it’s not new, and if it’s new then it’s not true.” If there is a so-called ‘new perspective on justification’ then it is not true. If it is true then it is not new. Watch out for deceivers. When you go along to a meeting organised by strangers make sure you take your brain and your Bible with you. Don’t be gullible. Don’t be bought by enthusiasm, shining faces and tall tales. Watch out for deceivers. Check everything out in the Bible. Tell your pastor all about it and ask his opinion.
ii] “You must be on your guard;” (v.9, and Jesus repeats the warning in v.23). A man can be the fittest and fastest boxer in the country, but unless he always keeps his guard up he’s not going to survive one round. He will be trained for years in ‘the noble art of self-defence.’ Whenever we gather together in church one purpose God has in bringing us together is to help us defend ourselves from sin and error. Have you noticed that that is the major purpose of the Christian armour? The helmet of salvation is a defence weapon. The belt of truth is a defence weapon. The breastplate of righteousness is a defence weapon. The shield of faith is a defence weapon. The only weapon of attack is the sword of the Spirit. How much of our ministry has to be spent in defending the people of God. The good shepherd guards the flock against thieves and wolves. A British soldier in Iraq has it drummed into him by his officers, “You must be on guard, from snipers, and from suicide bombers, and car bombs, and traps of all kinds.” The enemy of our souls wants to destroy us and take us to hell for ever with himself. “You must be on your guard.” You say to me that you want me to be positive in my preaching. Y es, I want to be positive too, but I want to protect you from those who would destroy you.
iii] “Do not worry” (v.11). God is concerned about our emotional state. The Christian is not to be characterised by neurotic anxiety, and obsessional preoccupations with the details of our pilgrimage. Imagine Bunyan’s Christian hesitating about leaving the city of destruction overcome with worry at the thought of all the dangers he was going to meet on the way. “Do not worry,” says the Lord. There are a million little devilish imps opposing us. Do not worry. There are all the false prophets, one after another standing up and claiming, “I am he!” You’re never going to meet even 5% of them. Look at all the psychological and spiritual energy spent thinking about them and what you might say. It is beyond your control. There is nothing you can do about it. You are worrying about wild possibilities. There are poor Christian men and women who present is mortgaged, whose today is a strain because of worry. God promises he will take care of things.
Jesus gives one illustration of this. You are arrested and put on trial for your faith. “So do not worry beforehand about what you are going to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit” (v.11). He is not telling us to blurt out the first thing that comes into our minds on every occasion. There are those whose tongues run away with them, and once words slip out they can’t be brought back. How often after a hot conversation have we thought what we should have said, what fine put-downs we might have used to put that man in his place, but aren’t we glad that we’re not that quick-witted. What a greater burden of guilt we’d carry through a chatterbox larynx. Christ is not giving this advice to preachers but to simple believers on trial for their faith before sophisticated cardinals and judges. How Christians have been given help on the scaffold and the rack, when facing the Inquisition to explain the truth. Read Fox’s Book of Martyrs and read of Christian fishermen and teenagers and young women confounding their accusers with chapter and verse from the Bible, to their own astonishment as much as to the observers in the court room. So that their friends said to them afterwards, “It was not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.” God will provide for us in persecuting times. Do not worry about anything but in everything in prayer and supplication make your concerns known to the Lord.
iv] Testify to all men. You see how we have to behave in dark days? “Stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them” (v.9). “The gospel must first be preached to all nations” (v.10). Your first priority is that men should hear the word, and suffering times are often the best times for evangelism. I sometimes think that it is far tougher in our dreadful age of apathy to spread the gospel than when the church is shedding blood for Christ, but I would not want such times to come to our land. Both apathy and persecution can kill the gospel in different ways. Christ’s point is this, that the forces of opposition from the world should not mute the voice of the gospel. Don’t be intimidated by the frowns of the world. Don’t let their threats silent you. Stand as witnesses then. Preach the gospel to all the nations then.
v] Pray and count on the compassionate Christ to hear you. I love the way Christ turns to these four young men and says to them, “How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that this will not take place in winter, because those will be days of distress unequaled from the beginning, when God created the world, until now – and never to be equaled again. If the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would survive. But for the sake of the elect, whom he has chosen, he has shortened them. (vv. 17-20). Not all troubles are equally severe. Some are horrendous, while others are minor difficulties. To have to flee from your home and family on foot to the mountains as a pregnant mother or with little babies Jesus himself said it would be dreadful. If it were winter time with the temperature dropping below zero at night and no place to shelter he infers that that would be dreadful! Pray it won’t be like that. It is just like our praying for things great or small, for the weather, for a place of shelter for the tsunami sufferers. We had our Prayer Meeting on Tuesday in which sixteen people, eight men and eight women it so happened, prayed one after another for concerns just like this, a pregnancy, a journey in winter, protection from opponents, readiness facing judgment as well as redeeming grace saving sinners. Why did we pray like that? Because Christ told us, “Pray that this will not take place in winter.” Pray that your husband won’t be made redundant without quickly having another job. Pray that your child will settle in her new school. We are facing the judgment seat of Christ and yet we are praying about the weather. Yes. Christ will hear. He is a compassionate Saviour.
“In every pang that rends the heart
The Man of Sorrows had a part.
He sympathises with our grief
And to the sufferer send relief..”
vi] Flee! That is what Christ says; “Let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains” (v.14). Everybody was flooding into Jerusalem from the countryside, hundreds of thousands of people packing into the city and the great gates closing in on them. There was no way out once you were in. “Don’t you do it,” says Christ. “You leave Jerusalem and you head for the mountains. Swim against the tide, and don’t delay.” Christ says that it is urgent, “Don’t go to the house for beloved objects. Don’t first run back from the fields to your home to pick up your cloak” (vv. 15&16). Escape for your life! Run with the clothes on your back. That is always a considered option. Do not wait to be butchered. Why delay? What’s the point of putting God to the test? He says, Flee!” When Herod was trying to kill the infant Jesus God told his protector Joseph to flee with him and his mother to Egypt. Get away! The English Reformers fled from Queen Mary to the Netherlands. John Knox fled to Geneva. Flee for your life, and then in kinder times return. We’re not supposed to court martyrdom. That’s very important because many Christians in the first century exalted martyrdom to the point that they actually enticed people to martyr them so that they could be numbered against those who had given their lives for the faith, but Christ here says, “Get out! Run away! Flee the destruction! Don’t sit there and my slaughtered like everyone else.”
When you are preaching the gospel and they reject your message and start throwing metaphorical stones at you then you may brush the dust off your feet and move on. Preachers have to leave their pulpits and manses and go to another church where the gospel will be received. God will tell you when it is time to flee to some mountains. Please consider it as an option.
Isn’t the whole of this chapter urging us to flee from judgment and wrath? Isn’t there only one hiding place, and that is Jesus Christ? As the old hymn says;
“Hail, sov’reign Love! that first began
The scheme to rescue fallen man;
Hail, matchless, free, eternal grace,
That gave my soul a hiding-place.
Against the God that rules the sky
I fought with hands uplifted high;
Despised his rich, unbounding grace,
Too proud to seek a hiding-place.
Indignant Justice stood in view;
To Sinai’s fiery mount I flew;
But Justice cried with frowning face,
‘This mountain is no hiding-place.’
Ere long a heav’nly voice I heard,
And Mercy’s angel-form appeared;
She led me on with gentle pace,
To Jesus, as my hiding-place.
On him almighty vengeance fell,
That must have sunk a world to hell
He bore it for his chosen race,
And thus became their hiding-place.
A few more rolling suns, at most,
Will land me safe on heaven’s coast,
Where I shall sing the song of grace,
And see my glorious hiding-place.”
Are you in that hiding place? Are you sheltering in the wounded side of Christ? Are you covered from all eternal danger under the robes of his righteousness? Are you fleeing from the wrath to come to the only Saviour, the Lord Jesus? Isn’t that the wisest thing to do, if the Son of God has told us to do this? That is the response that honours God. When I talk to people about baptism and confessing faith I ask them a question like this, “Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Saviour of sinners, and do you receive and trust in him as he is offered to you in the gospel?” Do you see what I am asking, whether you are trusting in ‘any old Christ’ or in the Christ who is offered to us in the gospel? It is so important for you to understand that it is the Christ of the Scriptures who saves, not the Christ of our imagination. There was once a conference of evangelical theologians and one of the delegates present who should have known better said that it didn’t matter what you believed about Jesus Christ as long as you trusted in him. A friend was stunned, and said to him, “What was the confession that the New Testament Christians made? Wasn’t it, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God’? Can you deny that and still be a Christian?” The man had no answer. There is no answer except that you must believe on Christ as he is presented in the gospel.
Go to Christ! Flee to this hiding place, said the Lord. Almost twenty-five years ago something happened 6,000 miles away from Wales that was to give Aberystwyth for a month the most spectacular sunsets. The sky would turn a wonderful golden orange and pink colour as the dying light shone through the billions of particles of dust in the atmosphere. Mt. Saint Helens in Washington State in the USA had been belching plumes of steam hundreds of feet into the sky for weeks. Geologists watched the needles of their seismographs quivering and the earth vibrating under their feet. Rangers and state police, sirens blaring, herded tourists and residents away from an ever-widening zone of danger. Every piece of scientific evidence being collected in the laboratories and on the field predicted the volcano would soon explode with destructive fury.
“Get away from the mountain!” blared loudspeakers on patrol cars and the helicopters hovering overhead. “Danger!” was the message coming from battery-powered signs at crossroads. “Act now! Don’t delay!” pleaded radio and television announcers, short-wave and citizens-band operators. “Flee for your lives!” echoed up and down the mountain and lakeside villages. Tourist camps and hiking trails emptied as people heeded the warning and got away.
One man called Harry Truman refused to budge. Harry was the caretaker of a recreation lodge on Spirit Lake, five miles north of Mt. Saint Helens. The rangers warned Harry of the coming blast. Neighbors begged him to join them in their exodus. Even Harry’s sister called to talk sense into the old man’s head, but Harry ignored the warnings. He grinned at the reporter on national television and said, “Nobody knows more about this mountain than Harry, and it won’t dare blow up on him.”
On 18 May 1980, Harry Truman was cooking his eggs and bacon, and feeding his sixteen cats the scraps. He was planting petunias around the border of his freshly mowed lawn, and then at 8:31 am the mountain exploded. Did Harry regret his decision in that millisecond he had before the concussive waves, traveling faster than the speed of sound, flattened him and everything else for 150 square miles? Did he have time to mourn his stubbornness as millions of tons of rock disintegrated and disappeared into a cloud which reached ten miles into the sky? Did he struggle against the wall of mud and ash fifty feet high that buried his cabin, his cats, his petunias and lawn, or was he vaporized (like 100,000 people at Hiroshima) when the mountain erupted with a force 500 times greater than the nuclear bomb which leveled that Japanese city?
Today Harry is a sad legend in the corner of Washington where he once refused to listen to the warnings. I saw his picture in the Mt. Saint Helen’s gift shops on posters and T-shirts and beer mugs. Balladeers sing a song about old Harry, the stubborn man who put his ear to the mountain but wouldn’t heed the word to flee. Don’t be like Harry and think you know better than Jesus. Why should you? Why should anyone listen to you rather than to the Christ of the gospels? Flee to Jesus the hiding place. Those are the counsels of Christ. He forewarns us to prepare us in these ways for the coming judgment.
3. WHY MUST ALL THIS BE?
Why do things have to happen in this way? What does Christ say?
i] The world which hated Christ will also hate those who live and speak like him. “All men will hate you because of me” (v.13). Has the evangelical church faced up to those words? They are unsophisticated. No one needs to explain their meaning, and so why are we surprised when we meet some rebuttal in our evangelism? When copies of the Evangelical Times are pushed back through our letter boxes, or when people tell us that they did read the evangelistic Christmas issue we gave them and didn’t believe it then here is the explanation? Shouldn’t the world hate my preaching? If I am faithful to my Master shouldn’t there be that response? Am I to start preaching messages which unbelievers judge to be ‘terrific’? If sinners say they enjoy coming to our church, and don’t change from one year to the next then there is something wrong with the sermons. I am no longer serving Christ. I am serving the world. “All men will hate you because of me,” said Jesus and so the years before he comes again are going to be characterised by tough resistance to the gospel church of Jesus.
ii] Our own faith must be tested to see whether it is genuine. “He who stands firm to the end will be saved” (v.13). Don’t you want to know before it is too late whether all is well between you and Christ or not? There will be many who will stand before Christ in the day of judgment who will be self deluded. They will go to him with the words, ‘Lord, Lord’ on their lips. They will go to him with their own mighty works, and their orthodoxy, and their gifts. Those things were their hiding place from the wrath to come. They thought all was well because of that. That is why they were deluded. Christ sent them to hell didn’t he? Isn’t that what he tells us? Who are those who will be saved? Those who stand firm in resisting deceivers, and stand firm in refusing to worry, and stand firm in testifying to kings and all men that Jesus is Lord, and stand firm in fleeing from the judgment to come by resting in Jesus Christ alone, and stand firm in Christ’s enabling and Christ’s compassion. They are the only ones who will be safe – those who stand firm until the end, but this is really a word of encouragement. What Christ is saying is this: “I know what I’m calling you to is going to be difficult, but there’s hope at the end of your travail.” There is a crown of glory set before you in your struggle, and so everyone who stands firm will receive it, the full blessings of God’s salvation. Those who remain loyal to Christ will enter that glory.
iii] Why must all this be? It is “the beginning of birth pains” (v.8) – the birth pangs of a new heaven and a new earth in which there will be righteousness only and ever. What baby has ever been born without some maternal contractions? That is the way children enter the world, and by all these cosmic convulsions God is going to bring in the final regeneration of the children of God. Listen to these great words from one of the greatest chapters in all of Scripture, Romans 8. “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.” (Roms. 8:19-24).
The death and resurrection of Christ, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the radical new discipleship in those changed by Christ and its constant impact on the unbelieving world and their persecuting response – all such things are the birth pains of the new heavens and earth that God is going to bring about. All who love God are going to be caught up in these convulsions. Special help will always be given to them as they live for Christ, because they must stand firm to the end, for the end is only the end of the beginning. It is in fact the beginning of life with God that will never end. And he that has that hope in him endures to the end.
23rd January 2005 GEOFF THOMAS