Sunday, September 6, 2015

Watching for Messiah

This post constitutes the notes I used for the sermon delivered at Alpine's First Baptist Church on September 6, 2015.

I have been a born-again follower of Jesus for 25 years. As many of you know, God used His prophetic Word to open my heart to Him. Consequently, I have a special interest in Bible prophecy because I know from first-hand experience that God uses Bible prophecy to help people know Him. And that is becoming even more important today as the signs of the Lord's soon return are becoming more obvious.

So I'm pleased to have an opportunity to share a message with you today. Probably the most important passage of Scripture that helps us understand Bible prophecy is known as the Olivet Discourse. This is where the disciples of Jesus asked Him when He would establish the promised kingdom of the Messiah on earth.

This is such an important passage of Scripture that the Olivet Discourse is included in all three of the Synoptic Gospels. But we will focus on Matthew 24. Note: I will use the title of Messiah a lot... "Messiah" in Hebrew and "Christ" in Greek both mean the same thing: "God's Anointed." I'll use the title Messiah to remind us that Jesus spoke in Matthew 24 to Jews for a Jewish audience. That historical perspective will help us better understand what Jesus is saying to us today.

The Disciples' Questions, Matthew 24:1-3
"Jesus went out and departed from the temple, and His disciples came up to show Him the buildings of the temple. And Jesus said to them, “Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down.” Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” (NKJV)

Aren't these great questions? Don't we too want to know the answers to these questions? The disciples wanted to know when the temple would be destroyed, and they assumed that it would happen as part of the Lord establishing His kingdom on earth at the end of the Age. For them, the end of the Age they were in would mean the beginning of the promised Messianic Era when, "the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed" (Daniel 2:44). They understood this kingdom to be not just a spiritual one but a literal, physical one where the Messiah Himself would rule the earth from Jerusalem; as Isaiah 9:6 says, "the government will be upon His shoulder."

What the disciples didn't realize was that there would be another Age between the Covenant of the Law and the Messianic Age. In between there would be the New Covenant also known as the Age of Grace or the Church Age. The Apostle Paul called the Church a "great mystery" in Ephesians 5:32 because it wasn't revealed to the Old Testament prophets.

So let's take a look at what signs Jesus gave us for the end of the Age:

The Escalating Signs, Matthew 24:4-8
"Jesus answered and said to them: “Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.  For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of sorrows."

Here Jesus lists a number of things that have characterized the human condition throughout history; so how are they signs? What makes them signs is that they will increase in frequency and intensity: “All these are the beginning of sorrows” (Matthew 24:8). The Greek word translated into “sorrows” is “odin” which means birth pains. So are we living during a time when we are seeing the signs Jesus gave us increase in frequency and intensity?

False Christs: We have always had cult leaders claiming Messianic authority but the number and impact of these religious deceivers are increasing. The fastest growing religion is Islam... while the Sunni and Shiites have their disagreements, they are both expecting the Messiah called al Mahdi to unite the world under Islam. Some Muslims are saying that al Mahdi is already here, waiting in the desert until a great war between the nations where he can emerge... it is interesting that Jesus specifically warned us about those who claimed the Messiah was hiding in the desert per Matthew 24:26.

Wars: There have been more people killed in the wars of the 20th Century than all of human history up until then. So far the 21st Century has not been as deadly, but the Century is still young. Among the types of wars Jesus mentioned as signs are "nation rising against nation." The Greek word translated “nation” in this passage is “ethnos” which refers to different ethnic people groups. I used to think we were beyond racial conflicts in this country but it looks like we have regressed in recent years and worse: the stage is being set for more racial conflict.

Famine: We don't notice famines so much in our global economy but our recessions result in the same loss of wealth as famines did in the agrarian society of the 1st Century. Our recessions are getting worse and we can expect the next one that is looming to be very bad.

Pestilence: It is certainly obvious that pestilences are increasing. There are many viral infections we thought we had eradicated in this country that are making a come-back like tuberculosis, scarlet fever, measles, and whooping cough. And we have new ones like Ebola and bacterial infections that are resistant to antibiotics.

Earthquakes: Have you noticed that earthquakes are on the increase? The U.S. Geological Survey which archives earthquake data does document an increase in earthquakes but they blame the increase on Hydraulic Fracturing. However, their own map showing where the earthquakes occurred reveal they have been in diverse places including locations where no fracking is going on. I saw a report from April that the number of volcanoes erupting at that time was greater than the 20th Century’s yearly average.

Jesus said we should not be troubled as we see these things... Why? Because God is in control and the end is not yet. The end will come, but for those who know the Lord, we don't have to fear the end. Indeed, the end includes our redemption to Him so we should actually look forward to the end. It will be an escape from a fallen world that sorely needs Jesus to make it right.

The Apostle Paul called our escape from this sin-sick world our "blessed hope" in Titus 2:13. It is not escapist to look forward to when we will be resurrected at the Rapture. Colossians 3:2 says, "set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth." We would all be better off making our decisions with an eternal perspective. For more on the Rapture, see 1 Corinthians 15:51-52 and 1 Thessalonians 4:15-18.

The Tribulation, Matthew 24:9-14
“Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name’s sake. And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another. Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold. But he who endures to the end shall be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come."

Jesus speaks of tribulation here which is a time of persecution. In context, He is not just speaking of general tribulation which has occurred since He was first here but "The Tribulation", a specific period of time that immediately precedes His return to establish His kingdom on earth. The Tribulation is also called "the time of Jacob's Trouble" in Jeremiah 30:7 and it is also known as the 70th week of Daniel since details about it are given in Daniel 9:27. The Tribulation is a terrible 7-year period on earth when God pours out his wrath on the nations that have rejected Him and His people.

I know it's not popular to talk about God's wrath these days but that in itself is a sign of our times per 2 Peter 3:3-7. Most of the book of Revelation describes the Tribulation in detail. The good news for the Church is that we will not have to suffer through the Tribulation as we shall see later in this message... In some places of the world today, Christians are certainly already in tribulation. But this is not "The Tribulation" which will be worldwide and is identified by certain specific prophetic events some of which I'll point out. The persecution of Christian is however a sign of the Lord's soon return and these instances will increase in frequency and intensity as we approach the Tribulation.

Jesus tells us that we can expect deception to grow as we get closer to His return. As 2 Timothy 3:13 says, "evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived." You'd think the public would be wise to the mass media by now but people don't want to believe their trusted institutions are manipulating them to embrace harmful ideological narratives.

Jesus said that lawlessness will abound... I don't know if you've noticed, but the United States Constitution is being seen more and more as a "living document" that needs to be interpreted and updated for our times. The result is that rule of man is eclipsing the rule of law in this country and the consequences of that will not be pretty. The rule of law is derived from God's Law and departing from it is what oligarchies and dictatorships do.

Jesus also said, the love of many will grow cold... The more people turn away from God, the less true sacrificial love of God we're going to see.

And Jesus said the end will come after the gospel of the kingdom is preached to all the nations. We are talking a lot about the end here, what end is Jesus referring to? In context, he is talking about the end of the Age which includes the Tribulation and culminates in Jesus coming back to establish His kingdom on earth.

The gospel of the kingdom refers to God's kingdom on earth. "Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6:10). This is yet future and will happen prior to the Eternal State as we shall see...

Now the idea that Jesus is coming back to establish a kingdom on earth is a strange doctrine to many people in our day. But this was not strange to the disciples to whom Jesus was speaking. Right before Jesus ascended back to heaven in His resurrected body, the disciples asked Him, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). They were anticipating a real physical kingdom on earth as promised throughout the Old Testament. Jesus didn't correct their expectation but said the future kingdom would happen in God's timing; "It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority" (Acts 1:7). This brings to mind God's response to Daniel when he asked the meaning of the prophecies God gave him: "the words are closed up and sealed till the time of the end" (Daniel 12:9). The season of the Messianic Kingdom would not be known until the generation that will see Him return. We know now that God has delayed His kingdom on earth in order to, "take out of [the Gentiles] a people for His name" per Acts 15:14.

Jesus did indeed establish a spiritual kingdom when He established the Church but this was in addition to and preceding His kingdom on earth that was promised to Israel. The Church has not replaced Israel in the promises of God as many people falsely believe... yes, we are spiritual descendants of Abraham per Galatians 3:29 but the time will come when God will again bless people through Israel: "I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in" (Romans 11:25). God is working through the Church today, but the Church Age will come to an end and then God will resume working through Israel again. God is not done with the Jews; why else has He preserved them as a distinct race of people despite their being dispersed among the nations for over 18 centuries? God preserving the Jews is clearly a fulfillment of Malachi 3:6... "for I am the Lord, I do not change; therefore you are not consumed, O sons of Jacob."

Another point of confusion about the coming Kingdom of God on earth is that it will be fulfilled by the Eternal State which is after all people will be resurrected. This future kingdom of God is called the Millennial Kingdom because it says in Revelation 20 that Christ will rule on earth for 1,000 years prior to the Eternal State. My favorite passage of the future Millennial Kingdom of Christ which proves it will not be fulfilled by the Eternal State is Isaiah 65:17-25. A careful reading of this passage reveals that there will be mortal people being born and dying during this future Age. So the new heavens and new earth of Isaiah 65 can not be the Eternal State when there will be no death per Revelation 21:4.

Now some people are OK with conflicts in Scripture like this; but I'm not. If you think the Bible is just the story of man's search for God, you would expect to find unresolved conflicts in it. But I know that "all Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness" per 2 Timothy 3:16. God is Almighty enough to have accurately given us and preserved His Word even using his flawed subjects. So if there appears to be a conflict in Scripture, it indicates that we are understanding something wrong and need to dig a little deeper to resolve the conflict. "Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15). God gave us His Word so that we may know Him; you have to wonder of anyone who is content with the superficial milk of God's Word and not wanting to go deeper into the meat of it really wants to know God (1 Corinthians 3:2).

So what is the gospel of the kingdom? It is the good news that Jesus, the Prince of Peace is coming to fix this sin-sick world. This is good news for any time but especially for His followers during the Tribulation. You could say that with the Internet and satellite communications, the good news of Jesus has already been declared to all nations. But the ultimate fulfillment of this prophecy will be during the Tribulation: "Then I saw another angel flying in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach to those who dwell on the earth; to every nation, tribe, tongue, and people" (Revelation 14:6).

Abomination of Desolation, Matthew 24:15-22
"Therefore when you see the ‘abomination of desolation,’ spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place” (whoever reads, let him understand), “then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let him who is on the housetop not go down to take anything out of his house. And let him who is in the field not go back to get his clothes. But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! And pray that your flight may not be in winter or on the Sabbath. For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be. And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake those days will be shortened."

This is a very important passage because it ties the signs the Lord gave us to watch for with the timeline that the Prophet Daniel gave us. So what is this "abomination of desolation"?

Daniel 9:20-27 describes 70 weeks of years for Israel that will culminate in the rule of Messiah on earth... The first 69 weeks of years, or 483 years extends, "From the time the word goes out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler comes" (Daniel 9:25). This 483 years has happened in history. In Nehemiah 2:1-8 we learn that Artaxerxes, the king of Persia issued a decree allowing the Jews to restore Jerusalem in the 20th year of his reign, or in 444 BC. If you do the math here as I have, adding 483 years to 444 BC, you'll find that "the Anointed One will be put to death" on the cross in about 33 AD. You have to allow for the fact there is no "year-zero" and that scholars say our current Gregorian Calendar has a 4-6 year error in when it originally placed the birth of Christ.

Isn't amazing that God told us the exact timing that Jesus would come the first time? No wonder Jesus chastised the Jewish religious leaders for not recognizing Him as Messiah since they did not "discern the signs of the times" in Matthew 16:3.

The Prophet Daniel separates out the 70th week of years from the 69 and prophesied that the Temple would be destroyed by "the people of the ruler who will come" in Daniel 9:26. That happened in 70 AD when the Romans sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. This "ruler who will come" should not be confused with the ruler called the "Anointed One" who is put to death. The "ruler who is to come" will emerge with the 70th week of Daniel: "He will confirm a covenant with many for one ‘seven.’ In the middle of the ‘seven’ he will put an end to sacrifice and offering. And at the temple he will set up an abomination that causes desolation, until the end that is decreed is poured out on him" (Daniel 9:27, NIV).

This "ruler who is to come" will confirm a covenant that enables a temple to be rebuilt in Jerusalem at the beginning of the 70th week of Daniel and he is also the one who sets up the abomination of desolation at the mid-point of Daniel's 70th week. If you haven't figured it out yet, this "ruler who is to come" is the Antichrist who will rule the earth during the 7-years of the Tribulation.

Some have said the 70th week of Daniel has already happened in history with the abomination of desolation being fulfilled by the Romans when they set up their standard of Caesar in the temple prior to tearing it down. But that would mean Daniel 9:24 has been fulfilled which lists all God will accomplish in the 70 weeks of Daniel including: "bringing in everlasting righteousness, sealing up vision and prophecy, and anointing the Most Holy" (NKJV). I don't see how anyone with the wildest stretch of the imagination could think that everlasting righteousness has been brought into this world, and Jesus, the "Most Holy" certainly has not returned yet to be anointed the King of kings over the nations.

Correctly understanding the Abomination of Desolation is important, the Prophet Daniel mentions it four times. And from 2 Thessalonians 2:4, we learn that the Antichrist will enter the temple and declare himself to be God. This is what Jesus warned His future Jewish followers about... when they see the ruler of the world commit the abomination of desolation, it is time to get out of Jerusalem.

Jesus said that following the abomination of desolation, "there will be great tribulation." The whole 70th week of Daniel is called the Tribulation, but Jesus calls the second half of it, great tribulation that would result in the end of all life on earth if allowed to continue. But Jesus ends the Tribulation when He returns. His return will not be in secret or just seen by a few; everyone on earth at the time will see His return: "all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory" (Matthew 24:30). People will morn Christ's coming because most of them will realize they bet on the wrong ruler who will be summarily defeated when Jesus comes back. But the beleaguered followers of Christ will rejoice because it means they have survived the Tribulation and will be entering the Millennial Kingdom ruled by Jesus Himself from Jerusalem. 

Let's take a look at the sign Jesus gave us that is probably the most relevant for all of us here:

Parable of the Fig Tree, Matthew 24:32-34
"Now learn this parable from the fig tree: When its branch has already become tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near. So you also, when you see all these things, know that it is near—at the doors! 34 Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place."

We know that the fig tree is a symbol of Israel per Hosea 9:10 and Joel 2:21-25. The generation that sees Israel preparing to bear fruit as a nation will be the generation that sees the return of Jesus. The fig tree of Israel started sprouting leaves when it became a nation on May 14, 1948.

There is no question that the presence of Israel in the Land God gave them is a miraculous fulfillment of prophecy. One of the most prolific prophecies in the Old Testament is that the nation of Israel will be re-established back in their land prior to the Messiah's return. It is unprecedented in history that a race of people who has been dispersed from their homeland for multiple centuries would retain their cultural identity and come back together as a nation again.

The Hebrew language was among the world's lost languages like Latin. But when the Jews needed a common language to be a nation again, they updated Hebrew with new words for our modern world. They could have chosen any number of languages that were already in use for their common language such as English which is effectively the international language of commerce. But instead, they did what is also unprecedented in history, resurrecting a dead language to the point where the average Jew on the streets of Israel can read the Old Testament scrolls in the original Hebrew in which it was written. Anyone who denies that God is fulfilling prophecy in Israel today doesn't know the Lord as well as they think they do.

Alright, Jesus told us that the generation of people who sees Israel put forth leaves in preparation for bearing fruit will be the generation that sees Him return. Church, we are that generation! We are well into the season of Israel's leaf bearing and thus about to enter the season of fruit bearing when God will resume working through Israel as his representatives on earth. This means that the Church Age is about to end.

When I discuss Bible prophecy with people, I often hear them try to justify ignoring the signs of the Lord's returning since Jesus said "of that day and hour no one knows" in Matthew 24:36.  But Jesus gave us signs to watch for so that we may know the season of His return as the Apostle Paul said we should know in 1 Thessalonians 5:1.

Let's take a quick look at one more portion of the Olivet Discourse and then we'll close...

Sign of the Rapture, Matthew 24:37-42
"As the days of Noah were, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and did not know until the flood came and took them all away, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. Then two men will be in the field: one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding at the mill: one will be taken and the other left. Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming."

I could preach an entire message on the "days of Noah" but this morning I want to focus on the people being taken... I've heard various explanations of this passage trying to avoid the obvious one that Jesus is talking about the Rapture of the Church here. I'll just make three critical points that have convinced me Jesus is speaking of the Rapture here:
  1. The Rapture of the Church will be a sign to the Jews; it will be such a spectacular supernatural display of the intervention of God that it will be hard for Israel to ignore (see Psalm 12:1). In 2 Thessalonians 2:11, God said he would send a strong delusion as an alternate explanation of the Rapture to facilitate people holding on to their unbelief. But God will open the hearts of the Jews to Him and they will recognize the Rapture for what it is.
  2. The taking of people Jesus spoke of will occur in the midst of life going on routinely pretty much as we know it now. That will not be the case during the Tribulation, even during the first half. The book of Revelation describes the terrible things that will happen as part of God pouring out His wrath on the earth during the Tribulation... life can hardly be considered routine during that time.
  3. Also, this passage is in the context of Jesus saying that no one knows the day or hour of His coming in Matthew 24:36. Thus this has to be referring to the Rapture because the Bridegroom coming for His Bride, the Church can happen at any time without warning. That is not the case when Jesus returns at least 7 years later to establish His Kingdom on earth. There are specific events that happen during the Tribulation where time-frames are given to the day for them to happen. For example, Revelation 12:6 says Israel will be supernaturally protected by God in the wilderness following the abomination of desolation for 1,260 days... this is exactly 3.5 years using the 360-day Hebrew lunar calendar. 

Finally, Jesus said that we should, "watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming." Notice He did not say we should wait for His coming but that we should watch for Him. Waiting is passive, watching is active. Jesus gave us signs to know the season of his return; in order to watch, we need to be familiar with what to watch for and looking for the signs He gave us.

Why do you think Jesus commanded us to watch for His return? He wants us to live ready for Him to return. It is all too easy to put off growing in our relationship with Him, but as we see signs of His soon return, this should give us a sense of urgency to learn all we can about Him...
  • Studying Bible Prophecy facilitates learning about Jesus, "for the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy" (Revelation 19:10). Bible prophecy does not lend itself well to just a superficial treatment; As you go deep in God's Word, you find yourself going deeper into a relationship with the Lord. The more we know about God and His ways, the better decisions we'll make in the here and now.
  • We should also have a sense of urgency to get on with whatever God is calling us to do. We have a window of opportunity to lay up treasure in heaven that will soon close. As Jesus said in John 9:4, "I must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day; the night is coming when no one can work."
  • And finally, I have found Bible prophecy to be a powerful evangelistic tool. It proves that the Bible really is from God since only He can declare the end from the beginning per Isaiah 46:10. There is nothing more relevant to our world today than Bible prophecy. The more we are watching for Jesus, the more we can help ourselves and others see how the Bible helps us make sense of the crazy trajectory this world is on.

I hope everyone here will be joining us in the Rapture of the Church. If you're not secure in your relationship with Jesus, I'd urge you to take care of that before it is too late. You will have an opportunity to come to Christ after the Rapture but the Tribulation will be an especially challenging time to be a follower of Jesus. As the Apostle Paul said in 2 Corinthians 6:2, "behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation."

I'm going to conclude with a prayer then we will have a song of invitation. This will be your opportunity to come forward if you need to make a public profession of faith or would like to join our fellowship here at First Baptist.

May we all go now in the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ.