By Pastor Glenn Pease
Jesus had just preached a pre-funeral sermon in Matt. 23. Judaism, as a religion representing the will of God in the world, was about to die, and Jesus was giving it the last rights, but it was not a very pleasant experience. Funerals, of course, never are, but pastors unusually try to find some good word to say of the deceased.
When Calamity Jane died at 51, but looking like 70 because of her wild life of prostitution and drunkenness, Dr. C. B. Clark, the Methodist pastor who preached the service, concentrated on the small pox plague of 1878. Jane, though a prostitute, bought drugs with her own money, and she nursed the sick back to health. The man who lowered her coffin into the grave was C. H. Robinson, who was nursed back to health by Jane. She lived an awful life, but there was that one redeeming time of selfless caring, and that was the focus at her funeral.
Jesus was not so kind in His pre-funeral sermon on the Jewish leaders of His day. Matt. 23 is a sermon of 7 woes in which Jesus does not just blast them with both barrels, but with a gattling gun of condemnation. We don't want to immerse ourselves in this river of verbal blood-letting, but we need to wade into it a little to get a feel for the context. Jesus left the temple is the way chapter 24 begins, but you have to look back to chapter 23 to see that it was the last time he would set foot in the temple. He was not just leaving the temple, but he was forsaking it. He was leaving it behind as a place no longer to be the house of God. In fact, He says in 23:38, "Look, your house is left to you desolate." It's your house now, said Jesus, and no longer is it what Jesus called it in 23:13, "My house will be called a house of prayer."
What was God's house was now their house, for the rightful owner was walking away, and leaving it empty of the presence of God. It was their house now, and they could do as they please, for God was gone. His efforts to reform the Jewish leaders had failed. They refused to repent, and so Jesus lays on them the heaviest prophecy in all the Bible. It was a weight so heavy that there is none to compare. To compare the burden that was going to come on them with any other would be like comparing the Rock of Gibraltar to a pebble.
Listen to these words of Jesus in Matt. 23:35-36. "And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berakiah, whom your murdered between the temple and the altar. I tell you the truth, all this will come upon this generation." Why was Jesus picking on that generation to suffer the wrath of God for all the murder of just men from the first to the latest? That sounds unfair to hold them accountable for the whole history of unjust murder.
What we see here is the principle that the more light people have, the greater the accountability. They were the only generation in history who had the light of the world in their very midst, and yet they refused to see. Others had some excuse, for they did not see clearly the light of God's will. They had some basis for their folly and rationalizing their actions, but not this generation. They had the light shining full force in their eyes, and still they refused to see. Such flagrant rejection of the truth led them to top off the sins of all history by the ultimate sin of killing their own Messiah-the Son of God. That was the last straw, and so upon that generation God was going to pour out His wrath.
Having prophesied such doom on Israel, Jesus walks out of the temple never to return. It was their house now and not His, and it would become their tomb as well in 70A.D. The Jewish leaders just dismissed all this as the ravings of a mad man. It was preposterous to think such a judgment would fall on them. They looked on Jesus as if He were a chicken little yelling that sky was falling. It was hard to believe, and so we see that even His disciples tried to get Him to cool off and modify His radical words of judgment.
This, after all, was the temple. It was the place of God's dwelling, and the pride of all Israel. They tried to get Jesus to reexamine His strong language in the light of the beauty of the temple. In Mark 13:1, the parallel passage to Matthew, one of the disciples said, "Master, behold what manner of stones and what manner of buildings." Luke 21:5 is Dr. Luke's parallel passage, and he has some of them speaking of how it was adorned with goodly stones and offerings. Some of the disciples may have never been to the big city, and they could be seeing the temple for the first time. They were deeply impressed by it. The Jewish Talmud said, "He that never saw the temple of Herod, never saw a fine building." It was started in 20 B. C., and was not completed until 64 A. D., only 6 years before it was destroyed.
It was a marvelous piece of architecture made of white marble and much gold. It was surrounded by great porches with solid marble pillars 37 and one half feet high, and so thick that it took three men with arms linked to reach around them. Some of the cornerstones have been found, and they weigh more than 100 tons. It was like the Rock of Gibraltar, and so awesome that the disciples, by their admiration, questioned the wisdom of Jesus in abandoning the temple. They were so impressed, but Jesus was not impressed with anything that did not promote the will of God, and so He pours water on their enthusiasm.
He says in verse 2 that this whole impressive structure will be so totally demolished that there will not be one stone upon another that will not be thrown down. This stone masterpiece will be a stone dump, and its destruction will be as awesome as its construction. They were trying to get Jesus to be a more positive thinker. Maybe something can be worked out, and the temple can be saved for the glory of God. These guys would have joined a save the temple campaign in a moment. It was the essence of their heritage as Jews. It was to them what Washington D. C. is to us. To talk about the total destruction of the temple was like telling us Washington D. C. will be wiped off the map. But that is the center of our heritage, and the American way of life. You can't destroy that! And that is how the disciples felt about the temple.
Jesus is not pleased with this disastrous elimination Himself, but He had done all He could to prevent it. That was His lament in 23:37, "Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing." You could only be a positive thinker so long in a setting of persistent rejection. There comes a point where the only alternative left is judgment, and that is where Jesus is. Jesus is saying that, yes it is a great building, but great will be the fall of it as well.
The disciples were impressed at the massive physical stones, but even these do not provide security from judgment. There is only one Stone that can give that security, and that is the very Stone Israel was rejecting-namely Jesus. Jesus told the chief priests and the Pharisees a parable about the tenants who would not pay the landowner his rent. He sent servants and they beat them. He sent his son and they killed him, and so he had to come in judgment on them. Then in the context Jesus says in Matt. 21:42, "Have you never read in the Scriptures: The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone."
Peter before the Sanhedrin in Acts 4:11 says of Jesus, "He is the stone you builders rejected which has become the cornerstone." Peter in his first Epistle makes a major point of Jesus being the Stone-the solid rock on which we stand. In 1:4 he writes, "As you come to Him the living stone-rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to Him." Then Peter goes on to make clear that Jesus is the cornerstone of a new temple, and that Christians are now the new priesthood in this temple. In 2:5-6 he writes, "You also like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says: "See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in Him will never be put to shame."
The point of all this is, the physical temple was to be destroyed, but God would still have His temple. It would be a living temple, not of stones, but of people. Jesus is more impressed with people than with stones. These dead stones would be replaced by living stones, and he would be the cornerstone of this greater structure yet, and He will be a stone that will never fall and never perish. You can build on Him for eternity.
This prophecy of not one stone being left upon another was literally fulfilled in 70 A. D., but Jesus did not wait until then to build His new temple. On Easter morning, when Jesus rose from the dead, the new temple rose as well. It took decades to build this temple of stone, but it only took three days to build the temple that would be forever. It was one of the most offensive things Jesus ever said when He said, "I can destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days." This was the major charge against Him before the Sanhedrin. It got Stephen, the first Christian martyr, killed as well, for the charge against him before the Sanhedrin, we see in Acts 6:14, was that he taught that Jesus would destroy the temple. This sort of thing really angered the Jewish leaders, and we hear people just passing by when Jesus was on the cross and they were hurling insults at Him, and Matt. 27:40 says they were saying, "You who were going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross!"
It was the biggest joke in Israel that a man would claim He could destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days. But each of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and John record this, and John gives it in greatest detail in John 2:18-21." Then the Jews demanded of Him, what miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this? Jesus answered them, destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days. The Jews replied, it has taken 46 years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days? But the temple He had spoken of was His body."
The point is, when Jesus raised His body it was the new temple of God, and the old one was obsolete. Jesus only literally destroyed it in 70 A. D., but it was no longer God's temple on Easter morning. The Shikinah glory of God left that place of stone, and dwelt forever after in the Living Stone-the Risen Christ, in whom dwells all the fullness of the Godhead.
Now the disciples come to grasp all of this later, and it all made sense after the resurrection, but at this stage of their education it was a mystery, and they came to Jesus loaded with questions. They wanted to know what sign to look for to tell them when all of this would happen. Their question takes us into a study of the signs. Richard Jefferies, the naturalist, explains how a robin can pounce upon a caterpillar when it is concealed among the grass and impossible to see. It is all a matter of reading the signs. Slugs, caterpillars, and such creatures in moving among the grass cause a slight agitation of the grass blades as they crawl under them. The bird has a trained eye, and knows when grass is moved by the wind, for broad patches swing simultaneously. But when a single blade of grass moves ever so slightly, that is a sign of-dinner is served.
All of nature operates on signs and signals, and we have learned to read many of them. There are signs of the seasons, and signs of bad weather we can all read. We also learn to read signs of our mates moods, or those of our friends, or boss, and these signs can guide our behavior. We live in a universe where messages are coming at us from all directions, and we are constantly decoding the signs. Words themselves are signs, and actions and gestures often speak louder than words.
God, by sign language, shouted to the world the meaning of the cross when He rent the veil of the temple from top to bottom. What a sign of His new open door policy to sinners to come into His presence by the blood of Christ. Nature, man, and God all speak to us by means of signs. An old Jewish legend says that when Joseph was Prime Minister to Pharaoh during the great 7 year famine, he emptied the chaff of his graineries into the Nile. And as it floated far down the river people along the banks of the Nile saw it and knew there was hope, for the chaff was a sign that somewhere up the river there was food, and that sign kept them going.
Constantine, the first Christian Emperor of the Roman Empire, saw a cross in the sky, and the words, "By this sign conquer," and he was motivated on to victory. Columbus with a ship load of near mutinous sailors finally saw some leaves in the water, and that was a sign of land ahead, and they were cheered to press on. We could go on and on, for signs are a vital part of life and history. Anybody who has traveled knows that life on the road would be a nightmare without signs. So it is not surprising that the Bible would have almost 200 references to signs. Nor is it surprising that people have a strong interest in signs of the times, and especially in signs of the end.
The disciples were no different than most of us. They were curious about the future, and about when Jesus would come again, and so they ask Him what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age? If it was not for the disciples curiosity, and their asking this question, we would not have one of the most fascinating chapters in all the Bible. Matt. 24 is next to the longest sermon Jesus ever preached, and since both Mark and Luke recorded also, it takes up more the New Testament revelation than any other subject Jesus ever dealt with. It is called the Olivet Discourse.
It is loaded with signs and teaching about signs, and they are not all easy to decipher, but it is exciting to try, for decoding the signs lets us get a peak into the prophetic future from the perspective of the Lord of all history. But before we start a serious search to make sense of these signs of our Savior, we need to see just how Jesus felt about our being sign searchers. Matthew's Gospel has 11 uses of the Greek word for sign, which is semeion. That is more than any of the other Gospels, but what is surprising is that 6 of these 11 are negatives. By that I mean they are denounced by Jesus, and they are tools of the forces of evil. Matthew wakes us up to the fact that there are two sides to this sign searching business, and one of them is a bad side.
You do not get a sainthood metal just because you have a craving and a curiosity about the signs of the times. It could be a vice, and could develop in you a spirit that makes Jesus angry at you, just like He was angry at the sign seeking Pharisees. In Matt. 12:38 we read that they came to Him and said, "Teacher we want to see a miraculous sign." They were saying that He should do something spectacular and force them to believe that He really was the Messiah. Jesus was not pleased with their request, but responded in verse 39, "A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah."
This whole scene is repeated in Matt. 16 where they again come to test Jesus and ask for a sign, and He again calls them a wicked and adulterous generation looking for a sign. Jesus is saying that it was a sexual and sensual generation, and such people are often so obsessed with the spectacular that they crave a thrill to get into anything, and they cannot just accept the truth even when it is not star studded, and with rockets going off all around it. Jesus was disgusted with people who needed sensationalism for any kind of commitment. He refused to feed this addiction in His day, and you can count on it that He is just as disgusted with it in people today.
Why is Jesus so angry about being seekers of spectacular signs? It is because such seekers are suckers that bring con men out of the woodwork, and the devil himself is the greatest con of all. You will note that the very first response of Jesus to the disciple's request for a sign is in verse 4, where He says, "Watch out that no one deceives you." More people have been deceived by being sign seekers than by any other way. They are sitting ducks for the master deceiver. The result is, this chapter is full of warning about the dangers of being sign seekers. In verse 24 Jesus says, "For false christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect, if that were possible."
This is the same Greek word the Pharisees used for signs. Jesus refused to grant their request, but Satan will not refuse. He will feed their lust for the sensational, and even believers will be impressed with these signs, almost to the point of deception. The thing we need to grasp right from the start is that Jesus is the greatest skeptic there is on end time signs. A major portion of His message to His disciples is this: Be as skeptical as you can be when it comes to signs of the end, and claims about the end and His second coming. You will find no such unbelief anywhere in the Bible as you find here in Matt. 24. Jesus borders on the fanatical as a skeptic. Look at the evidence.
V. 4-Watch out for deceivers.
V. 5-They will deceive many, these false christs.
V. 6-Don't let emotional things like war and rumors of war get you worked up.
V.11- Many false prophets will appear and deceive many.
V.23-Don't believe anyone who says Christ has come.
V.24-False christs will succeed in deceiving many.
V.26-Don't believe those with spectacular claims that they know where Christ is.
V.36-No one knows just when the second coming will be, so don't believe those who claim they do.
Anybody who studies end time theology, which is called eschatology, knows that every cult in the book specializes in it, for it is the most powerful tool they have for deceiving people with their claim to know what nobody else has discovered in the Bible. The cults have brought millions of people into their fold by being sign seekers, and by using sensational literature about the Second Coming and the end of the world. Jesus knew it would be so, and that is why He warns, and warns, and warns. Do not be a sucker, but be a skeptic, and do not believe everything you hear about signs and the end of the world just because somebody sounds biblical. Every cult there is bases their end time schemes on their use of Scripture. If falsehood was easy to spot Jesus would not have had to warn so frequently. The fact is, false teaching on the end times is very plausible and seemingly biblical, and that is why it is so deceiving.
It is okay to ask with the disciples, what is the sign of your coming and the end of the age? It is right and valid to be curious about what we can know of God's plan for the future. But beware of the danger. Don't be a gullible person who gets all emotional about every claim and rumor, and follow after someone who professes to have a crystal ball into which he can see the future. Jesus is not anti-emotion at all, but on this issue He is. This is an area of theology that is so full of abuses and deception that it has to be an area where we become very rational and skeptical. We must weigh things very carefully before we give them any place in our understanding.
Jesus is saying to His disciples that if you are going to travel this road of sign seeking, keep your eyes on these signs that I will give you first of all, and they are: Caution, Slow Down, Danger Ahead. The sign seeker who does not give heed to these signs is almost certainly going to be deceived and led astray. So let's face reality. We are about to embark on a journey that takes us through a mine field where the enemy has laid one trap after another. If I seem to be overly cautious as I lead the way, it is because I take the warnings of Jesus seriously, and because I have studied the history of how God's people have been lead astray time and time again by following false prophets.
Christian people have been so gullible and so open to swallow anything that so-called prophecy experts come up with that many pastors and evangelists have rejected sign seeking altogether. John R. Rice, the great evangelist who won tens of thousands to Christ, and who has had a great influence on over 20 thousand pastors, of which I am one, got so fed up with the sensationalism of preaching the signs of the times that he began a crusade to whip out sign seekers themselves as being dupes of the devil. His message spread widely by books, pamphlets, and papers was this: There are absolutely no signs of Christ's Second Coming in the Bible. Those who say there are pervert the Bible and reject the clear teachings of Christ. This is the other extreme that many are forced to take because of the folly of those on the other end who see signs in every event that takes place. We will pursue this subject in our next message.