Monday, September 22, 2008

Living for Christ at the Beginning of the End: Mark 13:1-13

Audio here
(This message was preached in a combined service with Greensboro Chinese Christian Church. Thanks to my very able interpreter Thomas Wu, whom you will hear on the audio.)

Just a few days ago in France, an experiment was begun where physicists are hoping to collide particles in a 17 mile circular tunnel 300 feet under ground. The goal in this experiment is to recreate the supposed Big Bang that secular scientists believe created the earth. Because of the magnitude of this experiment, many fear that it will have devastating effects on the world. One MIT physicist has received death threats from some who fear that the project will destroy the world. On the day that testing began, September 10, a 16 year old girl in India killed herself by drinking poison in fear that the world was coming to an end. This is just one example of recent fears that the world is doomed for destruction. [update: the thing broke down on Sept 19; testing to restart in Spring]. Some believe that the recent military movements of Russia are the onset of a new global threat. The development of nuclear capabilities in Iran and North Korea have many fearing that we are on the verge of a new Cold War. Islamic terrorism is a worldwide reality that continues to worry people about what the future may hold. And then there are those who suggest that the effects of global warming will destroy the earth, and point to the recent increase in catastrophic weather events as evidence.

I have good news and bad news about the end of the world. The bad news is that it is going to end. The good news is that God is in control of when and how it will end. And for those of us who know Him by faith in Jesus Christ, that is a great comfort amid the fears of the day. But fear of the end of the world is not a 21st Century phenomenon. Throughout human history, people have feared that Doomsday was upon us. This much we know for certain. The world will end, and every day we are one day closer to the end.

The Temple was the pride of Jerusalem. The Temple grounds covered an area of nearly 200,000 square yards. The enclosed area measured 35 acres and would house a dozen football fields. The sanctuary of the Temple was over 160 feet tall, and topped with gold and silver. As the sun rose on Jerusalem, the Temple was said to appear like a snow-capped mountain. If you and I were to see this, we would probably say the same thing that this unnamed disciple said in v1: “Behold what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!”

Jesus said, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another which will not be torn down.” In the surviving portions of the Temple’s foundation, blocks of stone have been found that are over 40 feet long, 11 feet high, and 14 feet deep, and weigh over 1 million pounds. In the minds of these disciples, no person, no army, no machinery could ever destroy such a building. To them, it seemed that the destruction of this building would only be possible if the world came to an end. And so, at the first opportunity, they asked Jesus, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are going to be fulfilled?” The rest of the entire chapter is His answer to their questions. In answering them, He points to the events that will take place in the near future, and to the events that will take place in the far distant future. Concerning those events that are far off, He says in v32, “Of that day or hour hour no one knows.” But of the events that are coming soon, He says in v7, “That is not yet the end.” In v8, He says, “These things are merely the beginning of the birth pangs.” As we all know, when labor pains begin, the childbirth may still be far off. But the onset of labor pains indicate that the birth is coming, and we must be prepared.

The Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 A.D. This event, Jesus says, would not mark the end of the world, but it is the beginning of the end. We do not know how long it will be until the end. Jesus said “No one knows … but the Father alone.” So we only waste time trying to calculate it. Jesus teaches us in this passage that we are much better off to focus on how we should live for Christ in the present, in the beginning of the end. And He does so by giving three specific warnings to His disciples. Today we are still living somewhere in between the “beginning of the end,” and “the actual end.” And we who are His disciples do well to heed the same warnings He gave to His disciples in the first century. These will keep us diligent in living for Christ at the beginning of the end.

The first warning is this:
I. We must not be deceived by imposters (v5-6).

“See to it that no one misleads you. Many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am He!’ and will mislead many.” Notice that Jesus says that many imposters will come. There won’t be one, or a few. There will be many. And also see that He says they will come in My name. That means that they will claim to have been sent by Jesus. And they will say, “I am He!” In the Greek New Testament, this reads literally that they will say “I AM.” Jesus spoke of Himself this way on several occasions, and everyone who heard Him knew that in referring to Himself as “I AM” He was claiming to be God. So these imposters will come, and not only will they claim to be sent from God, they will claim to be God. They will claim to be the Messiah. Perhaps they will point to Jesus and say, “If He had been the Messiah, He would not have suffered as He did. Behold I AM the real Messiah!” Within the next 100 years, no fewer than 12 individuals came on the scene claiming to be the Messiah. There were also those who rose up “in His name” and began teaching doctrines and stories related to Jesus that were not true. The recent popularity of the so-called “Missing Gospels” are examples of the heresy that was being taught by Gnostics who claimed to be the true followers of Jesus.

The imposters continue to mislead many today. According to some research, there were over 1,000 people during the 20th Century who claimed to be the Savior of the World. Some of them we know about. We could mention the famous cult leaders Jim Jones, David Koresh, and Marshall Applewhite. Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church, or “Moonies” as we call them, claimed to be the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, and that he appears in the world as the substantial body of God Himself. His movement has around 3 million followers worldwide. More recently, a Miami priest named Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda has claimed to be both Jesus Christ and the Antichrist. He has followers in 35 countries. Suma Ching Hai has become the popular teacher of the Quan Yin Method, and claims to be the reincarnation of Jesus and Buddha.

And there are many who have claimed to have new revelation from God about who Jesus is or what His will for His followers is: the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others refer to themselves as the only true followers of Jesus and present a completely different picture of who Jesus is and how we are to be saved than we find in the New Testament.

Jesus says we can expect this continue until the end. Just because we have imposters does not mean that we have come to the end – but we are in the beginning of the end. But He says to His followers: “See to it that no one misleads you.” They will mislead many, but they must not mislead you! We must be vigilant, on alert. We must know Jesus and know our Bibles so that we will not be deceived by the imposters who come claiming to speak in His name, and claiming to be the Savior.

And then there is a second warning given to those who would live for Christ at the beginning of the end:
II. We must not be dismayed by disasters (vv7-8)

Jesus says that throughout the centuries leading up to the end of time, there will be wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, and famines. Many of these things occurred in the first century when these disciples were still alive. And with each of these events, more and more fear and speculation began to convince people that the end was near. But the followers of Jesus were not to be dismayed by these things – He says, “do not be frightened” -- they had been warned in advance that they would occur. This was not the end, but it was the beginning of the end.

World War I was called “The War to End All Wars.” But it didn’t do it, did it? Just a few years later there was World War II. And since the end of World War II, historians tell us that not a single day has gone by when war was not being waged somewhere on the planet. And then there continue to be rumors of wars. What will happen with Russia, Iran, or North Korea? Will Zimbabwe erupt in a civil war? Who knows? Earthquakes, hurricanes, typhoons, tsunamis, severe droughts and widespread flooding – all these things go on all over the world. We know firsthand of the devastation that has occurred in America and in China in recent years. And thanks to television and the internet, we see daily heartbreaking images of destruction in other parts of the world. And famine continues to ravage impoverished nations. Even stable and prosperous nations have been affected by the declining global economy, and people are wondering if we will be able to feed ourselves. And many are asking, “Is this the end?” Jesus says that we may never know when the end will be, but it has begun, and we must not be dismayed when we see these things occurring. We must not be frightened by them. We can live in confident faith that God is in control of all that takes place in the world, and the world will not end until it is His time.

It is interesting that Jesus says in v7, “these things must take place.” That is bothersome to many people. Why must these things happen? Can’t God put a stop to it? Of course He can, for everything in the world is under His providential control—even the things we don’t understand. But because of human sin, we live in a world that is susceptible to calamity. The curse of the ground following Adam’s sin and the global judgment of Noah’s Flood have opened a veritable Pandora’s Box of natural disaster in the world. The suffering and evil in the world are not God’s fault, but humanity’s – it is the result of our sin and its natural consequences. Therefore Paul says in Romans 8 that the creation is groaning in eager expectation of the final redemption when all things will be restored. As long as we live in this fallen world, there will be wars and natural disasters. But we must not be dismayed by them, and we must not declare that this is the end. We must continue living for Christ in the midst of these difficult days here at the beginning of the end.

And then we come to a third warning:
III. We must not be diverted by persecutors (vv9-13).

Jesus says “Be on your guard.” And He warns that persecution is coming. Followers of Christ will be delivered to the courts, flogged in the synagogues, and will stand before kings and governors. Jesus is warning His disciples that persecution is not a possibility for them – it is a certainty. Paul warned Timothy in 2 Tim 3:12, “All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” One needs to look no further than the Book of Acts to see these things taking place just as Jesus declared. Why are Christians treated this way? Jesus says in v13 that it is because “you will be hated by all.” And by “all” He means “ALL.” Look at verse 12: brothers will betray brothers to death; parents and children will turn against each other. And why will they do this? Jesus says in v9 that it is “for My sake,” and again in v13, it is “because of My name.” We who follow Christ cannot be expected to be treated better than He was! He was betrayed, beaten, falsely tried, and executed. His followers can expect the same.

But they must not believe that God has abandoned them when they are persecuted. Rather, God has promised to be with them in the midst of their persecutions. Notice in verse 11, He says, “Do not worry beforehand about what you are to say” when “they arrest you and hand you over.” He promises them that the Holy Spirit will give them the words to say. He has not left them, but is speaking through them in the midst of their suffering! God has a purpose at work in the suffering of His saints. Jesus says in v9 that the Christians who stand before governors and kings for His sake are there “as a testimony to them.” And then He says in v10, “The gospel must first be preached to all the nations.” And what better way to share the gospel with the unreached peoples of the world than to take it directly to their leaders. It may not be by choice, but when a believer finds himself in the audience of a pagan world ruler or a person of authority, he must remember that Christ has placed him there to be His witness to share the message of the Gospel. This is exactly what we see the Apostle Paul doing in the closing chapters of the Book of Acts. He even demanded that he be transferred to the court of Caesar himself. That Caesar was Nero, who was known for his brutal treatment of Christians. Why did Paul want to stand before him? He wanted to preach the gospel to him too! Paul understood that every time he stood before a ruler, he had the opportunity to share God’s truth, to change a life, and perhaps to change the world. He had taken Jesus’ warning to heart – he was not diverted by his persecutors from the task of being Christ’s witness! We don’t know if Paul ever had the chance to testify before the Caesar Nero, but we do know that Nero had him put to death. It is no stretch to assume then that Paul did speak before Nero, and told him of the saving power of Christ.

Persecution has not disappeared for the followers of Christ. It continues to be a reality. In many parts of the world, betrayal, beating, unjust trial, and death are still looming over the heads of Christ’s followers. In America, the persecution is more subtle and less severe, but those who are steadfastly committed to Christ and boldly sharing His message are still met with antagonism. Jesus warns us not to let this affliction divert us from our task. With every persecution we meet for His sake we must depend upon the Holy Spirit to speak God’s truth through us as we take our stand for Christ.

We have been well warned of the conditions we will face as we live for Christ here at the beginning of the end. There will be imposters, there will be disasters, there will be persecutors. But these things must not deceive us; we must not be dismayed by them; and we must never be diverted from the task of making Christ known to the nations. The authenticity of our faith in Christ will be demonstrated in our steadfastness in the face of these circumstances. Those who fall away because of these things prove themselves to have never been genuine followers of Christ. But Jesus gives a glorious promises in v13 to those who do not let imposters deceive them; who do not let disasters dismay them; who do not let persecutors divert them. He says, “The one who endures to the end, he will be saved.” Saving faith perseveres through the difficulties of these last days. We are not at the end yet, but until the end comes, we must hold steadfastly to Jesus and His Word; we must face the calamity of this fallen world with confident faith; and we must take full advantage of every opportunity to be the instrument that the Holy Spirit will speak through as we testify for Christ. And as we do, others will see and hear the salvation we have in Him, and the Gospel will reach the ends of the earth. May God help us to do this for His glory until the end.

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