“Let not your hearts be troubled.”
It is Sunday, March 22, 2020. Here in Santa Rosa, California, we are “sheltering in place,” seeking to avoid contact with the coronavirus that, for many, has proven deadly. In portions of Africa a terrible plague of locusts is currently devouring harvests and threatening famine. In Utah, just days ago, there was an unusually strong earthquake. In Australia, just weeks ago, there were unusually destructive fires along the densely populated coasts.
How are Christians to understand such things? How are we to avoid debilitating fear and panic? How are we to comfort our non-Christian neighbors, as they—who are sitting in darkness, and in the land and shadow of death—secretly endure existential dread? How are we to quarantine our minds against doomsday scenarios that prompt us to quit our jobs, move to another country, stockpile rations, or buy up guns and ammunition? In short, in the midst of calamity, how are we to keep our cool till the end of the world, thereby fulfilling both our ministries and our highest calling, which is to glorify the Lord?
I am so grateful that the Lord himself has anticipated all these things: the earth-shaking events, the unique temptations, the unavoidable questions, and the special evangelistic opportunities they represent. And I am grateful for the provision he has made for us to face them with a wise, calm, compassionate, and God-honoring spirit. In this post I would like to consider his provision at some length. My focus will be on two biblical larders that are filled to the brim.
The Shepherd and His Apostle on Keeping our Cool
Our first text is Matthew 24:1-8. Here we have the opening lines of Jesus’ Olivet Discourse, our Lord’s definitive teaching on the end of the world, the events that will precede it, and everything we need to know to keep our cool and glorify our God until that Day comes. Listen carefully to the voice of the Good Shepherd:
Now after departing from the temple, Jesus was going his way; and his disciples came up to him and called his attention to the temple buildings. But he said to them, “Don’t you see all these things? I tell you the truth: Not one stone in this place will be left on another: Every one of them will be thrown down.” So as he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us: When will these things happen? And what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” In reply, Jesus said to them: “See to it that no one leads you astray, for many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will lead many astray. You will also hear of wars and rumors of wars: See that you don’t give way to fear, for these things must take place, but the end has not yet come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; and in various places there will be famines and earthquakes. But all these are only the beginning of the birth pains. –Matthew 24:1-8
Our second text was written by the apostle Paul to the Thessalonian Christians. Like the first, it too gives us the voice of the Good Shepherd supplying his people with wisdom and urging calm:
Now in regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to our being gathered together to him, we urge you, brothers, not to be alarmed or suddenly shaken from your presence of mind, whether by a spirit, an utterance, or a letter supposedly from us, claiming that the Day of the Lord has arrived. Let no one deceive you in any way, for that Day will not come until . . . –2 Thessalonians 2:1-3
It is important to note at the outset that both of these texts really do deal with the end of the world. So do dozens of others found in the Old and New Testaments. Indeed, more than any other book ever written, it is the Bible that has planted in the minds of people everywhere an expectation of the end of the world, however little they may understand what the expression actually entails. This special providence supplies Christians with an excellent platform for Gospel testimony in troubled times. It also requires that they know for sure what the end of the world will involve!
When the disciples questioned the Lord Jesus, they already had definite views on this subject, views that the Lord would have to correct and supplement. In the Olivet Discourse he made a fulsome beginning; after Pentecost, his holy apostles and prophets would make a fulsome end. With their passing and the closure of the biblical canon, divine revelation about the last things would be complete. Henceforth, all that people know or ever can know about the end of the world will be found in the pages of Holy Scripture, and especially in the New Testament. May the Spirit of illumination help us to understand these precious revelations, and to explain them clearly!
I believe we can do so by coming to grips with one of the great themes of biblical eschatology: the Consummation. When Jesus taught his disciples on the Mount of Olives, this was his ultimate theme. Notably, they inquired about three of its central elements: The Coming of Christ, the signs of his Coming, and the end of the age. Concerning these subjects, we now know that the disciples had one thing in mind, and Jesus quite another. They expected Jesus to rise up in the power of God as a national deliverer and king, even as David of old. Jesus, however, expected something very different and vastly greater: that he would die for the sins of the world, rise again to eternal life, ascend into heaven, sit down at the right hand of God as Prophet, Priest, and King, pour out the Holy Spirit upon the Church, send her out into the world to preach the Gospel, and, at the end of the age, come again in the power and glory of his Father, with all his holy angels, to effect the Consummation.
Good Bereans, who search the Scriptures daily to discover God’s eschatological truth, know these things (Acts 17:10-11). They also are familiar with the various elements of the Consummation: The Second Coming of Christ, the Resurrection of the Dead, the Glorification of the Living Saints, the Great Assize of All Sentient Beings before the Judgment Seat of Christ in the air above the Earth, the Last Judgment, the Destruction of the present Earth and its Works by Fire, and the Creation of New Heavens and a New Earth, the eternal home of the redeemed. When Christians hear talk of the end of the world, they think of all this; they think of the Consummation, and they rejoice. When unbelievers hear talk of the end of the world, they really don’t know what to think; yes, some may mock, but deep down all shudder. Christians have a precious balm to pour into the trembling hearts of their neighbors. God grant us the grace to offer it, and our neighbors the grace to receive it.1
This brings us back to the subject at hand: keeping our cool till the end of the world. Both Jesus and Paul know that the Consummation is coming. They know that certain things must happen before it does. They know that in the midst of those things there will be a great potential for deception, misunderstanding, and panic. Their burden is identical: to protect the flock of God from them all. And what is their prescription? I would sum it up in three exhortations: avoid deception, anchor to truth, and keep on keeping on. Let us take a moment to consider each one.
Avoid Deception: It Only Leads to Fear
Note carefully the very first words on Jesus’ lips as he responds to his disciple’s questions: “See to it that no one leads you astray!” Note also those of Paul: “We urge you, brothers, not to be alarmed or suddenly shaken from your presence of mind, whether by a spirit, an utterance, or a letter supposedly from us . . . Let no one deceive you in any way.”
Again, these shepherds know their sheep. They know how easily sheep are deceived. They know how swiftly deception leads to fear. And they also know how in days ahead the prince of the power of the air will flood the atmosphere of the world-system with fear-inducing lies and errors. Accordingly, from the very outset they urge upon the saints the greatest possible caution: “Avoid deception. Be careful about the voices you listen to. When popular notions about the dreadful course of current events knock insistently at the door of your mind, think twice before opening. Test all things, hold fast to what is good. It is easier than you imagine to be deceived and shaken from your steadfastness of mind.”
In a season of world history when electronic floods of “knowledge,” “expert opinion,” and “scientific consensus” sweep over us daily, we must take these words to heart. We must, of course, beware of distortions of biblical teaching about the Consummation. But if we are to walk without fear, we must also avoid non-biblical forms of deception. Other faiths have their own beguiling eschatologies. Secularists have their own doomsday scenarios and intoxicating panaceas. Whether intentionally or not, philosophers, scientists, and politicians can fill our minds with lies, errors, and half-truths, thereby flooding our hearts with doubt, confusion, and fear. We all have heard their trumpet blasts: man-made climate change, eco-disaster, overpopulation, economic collapse, gun violence and anarchy, aliens ominously streaking through our skies. The list goes on.2 But as deception and dread beckon, the saints must hear again the word of the Lord: “See to it that no one leads you astray . . . See that you don’t give way to fear!”
Anchor to Truth: It Always Leads to Peace, Confidence, and Eager Expectation
First the Lord and his apostle tell us to avoid deception. Then they tell us how to do it: Anchor yourselves to truth, for it always leads to peace, confidence, and an eager expectation of the return of Christ, who will replace the present evil age with a glorious World to Come.
Each of us will have to develop a case-sensitive strategy for honoring this command. Nevertheless, speaking broadly, I cannot doubt that it will involve saturating ourselves with the Scriptures. God has granted his people to be born from above. He has given them the Spirit of Truth. He is eager to guide them into truth, and to anchor them to truth, if only they will dig deep into the Word of Truth. The Good Shepherd identified himself as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Once the flock has heard his voice in the Scriptures, they will have an ear for the truth, and so become deaf to deception. Then, when they hear the voice of a stranger, they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers (John 10:5).
To walk steadfastly at all times, we shall have to be mastered by all of God’s truth. To keep our cool till the end of the world, we shall have to be mastered by a certain species of his truth—eschatological truth: truth about the Consummation, and in particular, truth about the historical signs that point ahead to it. Again, each of us must study these things for ourselves. By my lights, they fall into two categories: signs of the beginning of cosmic rebirth, and signs of the imminence of cosmic rebirth. Let us take a moment to look at them both.
1. Signs of the Beginning of Cosmic Rebirth
In our first text, the Lord himself prepares and steadies his disciples by teaching them about “the beginning of the birth pains” (Matthew 24:8). This is a fabulously rich metaphor. He has in mind certain signs—signs that will recur throughout the entire remainder of the present evil age. As we shall see, many of them are judgments of God. For this reason the signs could aptly be called “death throes,” since they signal the death of the world as we now know it. Jesus, however, prefers to call them birth pains. That’s because, at a deeper level, the signs point, not simply to judgment and death, but also and ultimately to redemption and eternal life. Thus, he likens the world to a pregnant woman. The disciples are to know that because of her sin, painful judgments will indeed come upon her. But more importantly, they also are to know that the judgments herald a great blessing: the return of Christ, the Consummation, and the birth of a new and glorious World to Come!
Once again, these particular signs are unique in that they appear throughout the present evil age, an age that began with the fall of man in Eden, but which now has been invaded by Christ and the Gospel. Accordingly, these signs reflect the clash of the Kingdom of God with the kingdom of Satan, a clash that will continue throughout the entire era of Gospel proclamation (Rev. 12:1ff). All past generations of Christians have seen them; all future generations of Christians can expect to see them. Jesus tells us that they are indeed signs of the end: of the Consummation. But he also tells us that they are signs that the end has not yet come (Matthew 24:6). More on this in a moment.
The beginning of the birth pains is itself twofold. On the one hand, it includes what are manifestly judgments of God: wars, rumors of war, famines, earthquakes, pestilence, and other such calamities. Yes, the decisions of sinful men often contribute to them. But like the events themselves, those decisions are also under the control of Providence. Because of men’s sin, rebellion, and idolatry, God hands them over to a debased mind. Professing to be wise, they become fools. As a result, they make foolish decisions, all of which lead to the judgments of God (Romans 1:18f). I live in California, where thousands of abortions occur daily, where suicide is legal, where sexual immorality is rampant, where “gaming” is widespread, and where marijuana production and distribution is currently classified as an “essential industry.” Not surprisingly, our state is also the site of all manner of disasters: crumbling infrastructure, gang warfare, homelessness, deep pockets of poverty, destructive fires, and now the spread of the coronavirus. Politicians try to blame their opponents and their policies. Christians know to ascribe them to human sin, divine providence, and the judgments of God.
Very importantly, these particular judgments are not final. They do indeed point to the Last Judgment, but they are not the Last Judgment itself. They point to the end of the world, but they will not accomplish it. Rather, as the apostle John saw, they are trumpets of God, warning of the coming Consummation (Revelation 8:1f). Therefore, alongside the judgments, and mitigating the judgments, there appears another sign, a sign of God’s great mercy and love: the preaching of the Gospel. Believers must take this to heart. It is only through the ministry of the Church that terrified sinners, staggering under the judgments of God, can behold what the judgments portend. And it is only through this same ministry that they can behold the God-ordained City of Refuge, to which they may flee for safety (Numbers 36:6f; 1 Thessalonians 1:10).
The Lord also warns that the beginning of the birth pains includes what are manifestly acts of Satan: the emergence of false Christs, false prophets, and false teachers; the apostasy of false believers; and the persecution of the true spiritual Church at the hands of an unbelieving world (Matthew 24:4-14). The latter is especially significant in the economy of the present age. Persecution elicits the urgent prayers of the saints, who plead with God to grant them justice against their adversaries. Jesus assures them that though God seems to delay in answering, he will not do so for long (Luke 18:1-8). Though silence seems to reign in heaven, it is only for half an hour. Moreover, throughout that half hour the cries of the persecuted are mingled with his grace, and rise like incense before his throne. Soon the angel will cast fire upon the earth. Soon there will be claps of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and shakings of the earth. Soon the trumpets will sound again. Soon there will be more judgments in the earth: signs and warnings of a Consummation that will not sleep, and that has long been on its way (2 Peter 2:3; Revelation 8:1f).
But again, if the saints are to keep their cool till the end of the world they must hear well the Lord’s warning: “Such things must happen, but the end is still to come” (Matthew 24:6). Yes, the beginning of the birth pains tells us that the end is fast approaching (Revelation 12:12). But these same signs also tell us that the end is not yet here. In other words, the Church is to understand that the Consummation will not come by means of these signs. It will not come by ordinary providence, and it certainly will not come at the hand of man (e.g., man-made climate change, germ warfare, nuclear holocaust, etc.). Rather, it will come at God’s appointed time, and in God’s appointed way. It will come at the return of the High King of Heaven, and it will be effected by his Word, his Spirit, his angels, and his people (Daniel 7; Revelation 19). Until then, the signs that point to cosmic rebirth will continue. Like a woman in labor, the world will groan, then rest, then groan again. Judgment will fall, blessing will follow, and judgment will fall again. Turmoil will explode upon the scene, business as usual will ensue, and turmoil will again explode upon the scene (Genesis 8:21-22; Matthew 24:36-41; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11). So shall the cosmic labor continue throughout the remainder of this age, with the contractions increasing both in strength and frequency, until at last the World to Come is born and the Bride of Christ is filled with everlasting joy (John 16:21, Revelation 21:1f).
In all of this the mission of the Church is clear. The judgments of God are meant to lead the world to repentance and faith. The blessings of God are meant to lead the world to repentance and faith. And the Gospel preaching of the Church—in which both the judgments and the blessings are interpreted and applied—is meant to lead the world to repentance and faith (Romans 2:4). Accordingly, the Lord’s disciples must never allow themselves to be distracted or unsettled by the beginning of the birth pains. Rather, they must anchor to the truth, keep their cool, and occupy till their Lord comes. In particular, they must seize every God-given opportunity to advance the cause of Christ; and as they do, they must make wise use of “the signs of the time” (Matthew 16:3).
2. Signs of the Imminence of Cosmic Rebirth
There is a second category of signs: signs pointing to the imminence of cosmic rebirth. We see this in the further words of Christ and Paul. Blending predictions of the imminent destruction of Jerusalem with predictions of the Consummation, Jesus speaks of several of these signs (Matthew 24:15-28). In 2 Thessalonians 2 the apostle Paul speaks speak of two in particular: a final world rebellion against the Law and Gospel of God, coupled with a final world leader: an imitator and opponent of the true Christ, who is therefore called the Man of Lawlessness and the Antichrist (2 Thessalonians 2:3-12; 1 John 2:18, 4:3). Other New Testament texts give us a few more.
These signs are different from the beginning of the birth pains: They do not appear throughout the entire era of Gospel proclamation, but only towards, or at, its end. Yes, they are birth pains, but they are the final pains. Here, the cosmic birth process reaches transition. Here there is great agony, but also great ecstasy just on the other side. Awareness of these signs is of great value to the pilgrim Church. Until she sees them come to pass, she knows that the end is “still to come.” When she sees them come to pass, she knows to endure bravely and with great expectation: the shout of the Bridegroom will soon be heard ringing throughout the universe!
By my lights the following biblically predicted events fall into this special category of signs:
- The completion of world evangelization (Matthew 24:14; Rev. 5:9)
- The conversion of the great mass of world Jewry (Genesis 45; Luke 21:23-24; Romans 11:11-32)
- Extraordinarily deep and widespread spiritual darkness (Matthew 24:12; Luke 17:26-30; 2 Thessalonians 2:3)
- The rise of a satanically controlled and empowered personal Antichrist; the advent of a one-world government, religion, and economy, all of them more or less completely under his control; and a brief but fierce persecution of the true spiritual Church at his hand (Matthew 24:15, 21; 2 Thessalonians 1ff; 1 John 2:1; Revelation 11:7-10, 16:12-16, 19:17-21, 20:7-10)
- Extraordinary disruptions in the heavens, on the earth, and in world society (Daniel 12:10; Matthew 24:21-22; Luke 21:25-26).
Yes, when the Church sees all these things coming to pass, she may confidently say, “He is near, even at the door!” But will that be a license for her to panic? Far from it! For in that day, by the Spirit of grace, she will find herself doing exactly as her heavenly Husband instructed: Despite all her suffering, she will straighten up, lift up her head, and know that her redemption—even the Consummation of all things—is drawing nigh (Luke 21:28)!
Keep on Keeping On
Why have the Lord and his apostles given us all this trustworthy eschatological truth? The answer is clear: to provide an anchor for our souls, so that when we see the beginning of the births pains—things like the coronavirus, or a plague of locusts in Africa, or raging fires in Australia, or severe earthquakes in Utah—we will not give way to fear, or be shaken from the peace, confidence, and eager expectation that is ours in Christ.
Rather, watching carefully for the true signs of the imminence of the Lord’s Return, we will keep on keeping on. We will faithfully take our nourishment as we journey through the wilderness of this present evil age (Revelation 12:14). We will resolutely abide in the Vine (John 15:4-5). We will diligently follow the Lamb wherever he goes (Revelation 14:4). We will patiently exercise our spiritual gifts (Romans 12:6-8). We will prayerfully and practically love one another (John 13:34; James 2:16; 1 John 3:19). And as we do all these things, we will make every possible Spirit-led effort to love our neighbor, calm his fears, anchor him to the truth, and—God willing—give him a hand up into that great Ark of eternal safety, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Thus shall we keep our cool till the end of the world, and thus shall we glorify the Lord.