The King Judges Those Left BehindErwin W. Lutzer | October 10, 2010
Selected highlights from this sermon
Ground Zero during the Great Tribulation will be Jerusalem. There the Antichrist will proclaim himself God, and Satan will attempt he’s always wanted: to be a duplicate of God.
In Matthew 24:1-28, Jesus gives us signs to warn us when the tribulation is near. Though the signs He speaks about take place during the tribulation, they get their start in the here and now.
Once it all falls into place, the human heart will finally be revealed in all of its sinfulness, and the God whom we’ve domesticated will unleash His wrath.
Today I’m going to speak about a subject that is awesome. Awesome because of its reality, awesome because it is going to come. It’s a message that will lay a huge burden on your soul. It is a message actually of judgment. Of course we shall end with grace, which is where we always need to end but before we get to grace we have to look at the words of the Lord Jesus Christ about the topic of what we call the great tribulation. It’s actually what he called it–the great tribulation.
There are many people today who downplay the tribulation because either they spiritualize it and simply say that it happens somehow spiritually. Some even believe that it has already happened, and then there are others who minimize it because as far as they are concerned the church has always had tribulation so why the uniqueness of the great tribulation? Today, as we shall see that while the Church has always had tribulation, it has never had what we are going to be discussing today.
You know in the Old Testament the great tribulation was predicted. Let me read a few passages before we get to our text. In the book of Deuteronomy, the Lord God says that he would scatter Israel and then He would bring them together, and in chapter 4, verse 30 he says “When you are in tribulation and all these things come upon you in the latter days (notice that), you will return to the Lord God and obey his voice.” All that happens in the latter days, and Israel shall turn to God, as we shall see in just a moment.
Then you have the book of Daniel. He says this in chapter 12. Please listen carefully. “At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince, who has charge of your people, and there shall be a time of trouble such as have never been since there has been a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered (that is, the Jews), everyone whose name shall be found written in the book, and many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to everlasting shame and contempt.” Daniel predicted a time of great tribulation and there would be those who would be saved whose names were written in the book.
Revelation 7 talks about a great multitude (and we will be mentioning this as we go through this) that came out of the great tribulation, and Jesus spoke of it very clearly.
Before we turn to Matthew 24, I’m going to begin by giving you some purposes of the great tribulation. Why this great tribulation that Jesus speaks about and the New Testament speaks about in various passages? Why the great tribulation? First of all, the great tribulation is a time when God unleashes His wrath on the earth. It says in the book of Revelation that the great day of His wrath has come and who shall be able to stand? In fact, when it comes to the vials and the bowls that are thrown out on the earth it says, “The cup was filled with the unmixed wrath of God.” You say, “Well, why is God so angry?” He’s angry because during this period of time, as we shall see, the antichrist arises. Almost all the world, except those who are written in the book (and we’ll talk about that), will worship him. It is a time of unparalleled evil and a time of unparalleled blasphemy, and God is going to show His indignation to the earth.
You say, “Well, does the last generation have to be the one to endure this?” Well, the fact is that those who have died, if they have not trusted Christ as savior, will be in a place called Hades, which I’m sure will not be better than being in the great tribulation, so in the end God’s justice will be finally tuned and correctly distributed, but here we see God’s anger and wrath against sin.
The second reason is to prepare Israel to enter into the kingdom. I said a moment ago as we were reading from the book of Daniel that the people shall go through this time, and then there will be those who will be resurrected to life. There will also be those who survive the tribulation who go into what we call the millennial kingdom. In fact, Jeremiah has an interesting prophecy. He says that this period of time (the great tribulation) is the time of Jacob’s trouble, but he shall be saved out of it. Paul said in Romans, “so that all Israel shall be saved.” There’s going to be a whole generation of Jewish people who are going to see Jesus as the Messiah when He returns, and accept Him as their own, and they, along with some Gentiles as well, will go into what we call the millennial kingdom.
So remember, first of all comes the tribulation. Then all those Old Testament and New Testament prophesies regarding a kingdom on earth. Now you might be gratified to know at this point that I will be preaching an entire message just on the millennial kingdom as we go through this series entitled “When He Shall Come” [retitled “The King is Coming] So the second reason is to purify Israel, to save Jews who will become a part of the kingdom, so that God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob can finally fully be fulfilled.
There’s a third reason, and that is that during this period of great tribulation the human heart is finally revealed in all of its sinfulness. You read the story in the New Testament book of Revelation of the judgments, and even though there are hailstones coming from heaven, and the sky is blackened, and rivers are being turned into blood, it says that many people still would not repent of their sorceries and of their immorality. You’d think they would say, “Wow! In light of this I’m going to flee to God’s grace.” Millions will. Multiplied millions will not. The human heart is very interesting and revealed during this period of time.
There’s a final reason and that is to show Jesus Christ’s total triumph over the devil. When you get to the book of Revelation and you see there the story of the great tribulation, Satan no longer is working under cover. Now he is spoken of as the Red Dragon that has been cast out of heaven, and Satan, in his fury, is going to do all the damage that he possibly can to God and to God’s people, and it will appear at times as if he’s winning, but in the end he loses and is cast into the lake of fire, justly so, where he will be tormented day and night forever and ever. At the end of the day, the contest is not even close. Jesus wins.
Now all that is simply my introduction. Our text for today is Matthew 24, and today we are going to read the Scriptures. Follow along. These are the words of Jesus. Take it from Him. He’s with the disciples and they are overlooking the temple area and Jesus said, “All of these stones that you see here-the beautiful temple that was built–not one stone shall be left upon another that shall be torn down.” The disciples asked him (verse 3), “When will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming, and of the close of the age?” Jesus, in effect, ignores their first question about when these things-the destruction of the temple-will take place, and He launches into this discussion of the signs of His coming and the end of the age. Now it is true there are some parallels between this and the gospel of Luke where Jesus does talk about the coming destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. but Jesus begins, and He talks about certain signs.
So are two questions we have to answer before we get into the text, namely where are we as believers during this period of time? Where do we fit into this? As you know, based on the previous messages that I have given, I believe that we will be raptured up (1 Thessalonians 4) and we will be with the Lord because the coming of Jesus is in two stages. First of all, He comes for His Church, and then He comes with the Church and with His saints, and today we’re talking about that second stage of the great revelation of Jesus when, as we shall see, as lightning goes from one end of heaven to the other so shall the coming of the Son of Man be. We’re talking about stage number two in His return. So if this scenario is correct, and you’ve trusted Jesus as your savior, you will be in heaven waiting to return with Christ, but we will be exempt from the wrath to come because this is a time when God’s wrath falls upon the earth.
There’s a second question and that is that the signs that Jesus talks about-are they signs for today? Well, not really. They are signs during the tribulation period, during the first half of the tribulation period. They are signs, but their root can be seen today. Every one of these signs in one way or another is happening today. By the way, as you read this chapter do you notice how Jewish it is? It talks about Jerusalem. It talks about “Oh, pray that your flight will not be on a Sabbath day, etc.” Why is it so Jewish? The best way to view the Church is as a parenthesis. In the Old Testament God dealt with Israel. The Church is inserted into this, and now that the Church is taken away, God takes up where He left off to fulfill the Old Testament promises, and that’s why you don’t see the Church here. What you see is a message to Jewish people and to Gentiles as well that will be there during the period of the great tribulation.
Well, very quickly now let’s look at the signs. We must hurry on. Jesus said in verse 4, “See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray.” Today we have something like that. We have many different Jesuses. We have a Mormon Jesus; we have a New Age Jesus; we have a do-it-yourself Jesus; a cut and paste Jesus. People have different Jesuses but in that day many will say, “I am the Christ,” a huge worldwide deception. Notice there will be war. Verse 6 says, “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place (Years ago I preached a message on the little word “must”–things that must take place), but the end is not yet. Nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.” There’s going to be world war and in the period of time known as the great tribulation it’s going to end with the Battle of Armageddon. So kingdom will rise against kingdom, there will be famine (certainly we have that today), earthquakes in various places (the number of earthquakes, I’m told, is increasing). “All these are but the beginning of birth pangs. [This is just the warm up.] Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake.”
Why the spread of persecution that is actually going to result in many people dying, and many people being raised as martyrs? And then it says, “And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” This has nothing to do with the issue of eternal personal security. What Jesus is saying is that the person who endures to the end of the tribulation period, after so many millions die, will be rescued by Jesus, and will be given the opportunity of entering into the kingdom. And so if you endure to the end of the age, the end of the tribulation period is what Jesus actually is talking about.
And then there’s another sign. In verse 14 says, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”
At this point in time we have to say, “Whoa, stop! Let’s think this through.” The Church is taken away and the restrainer is taken away. The Holy Spirit is still in the world but in an Old Testament sense of the word. Antichrist is beginning to mobilize to sign a covenant with Israel, a covenant of peace evidently, and yet you have all these people saved during the tribulation period. Where did they come from?
If you have your Bibles open let’s turn for a moment to Revelation 7 where we see here the story of the 144,000. Revelation 7:1 says, “After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, that no wind might blow on the earth or sea or against any tree. Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, saying, ‘Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.’”
God is saying, “I am going to restrain my wrath while 144,000 Jews are sealed so that they might not be destroyed during the tribulation.” Some people read this and they say, “This must be the Church.” Well, it actually lists the tribes, and how does God come up with such a neat number–12,000, 12,000–to make 144,000? Only God can do that. God evidently has chosen some people and will in the end time seal them, and they will be converted, perhaps miraculously, something like Saul on the way to Damascus. God may just simply come out of heaven and say, “Believe on Jesus. Be saved,” and 144,000 are saved.
Now if you believe that the Church is going to go through the tribulation, as many fine Christians do, you still have the question of how the Church evangelizing ends up exactly with 12,000 from each of the tribes. It is a miracle done of God. You say, “Well what if that isn’t the correct interpretation, and that these 144,000 become the evangelists?” By the way, in the last part of Revelation 7 it talks about all those who were saved during the tribulation, the great number who evidently die and are beheaded and are now in heaven. But you say, “Well, how do we know that those folks are going to preach the gospel?” Well, you know God is never out of ideas.
Listen to this from Revelation 14:6: “Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people.” An angel flies with an eternal gospel to every nation, tribe, language and people, “And he said with a loud voice, ‘Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.’” If God wants to evangelize the world, if the gospel is going to go to every nation, He can even use an angel to do it.
We haven’t done it as a church. There are many Christians in all the countries of the world, but not that many, and there are huge countries where very few have heard the gospel. God may use even an angel to proclaim it to them, and if an angel proclaims it to them, you can be sure that they would listen. Imagine an angel flying over a nation and saying with a loud voice, “This is the gospel.” Is it any wonder that many, many do believe? Jesus said, “This gospel of the kingdom must be spread throughout all the world as a testimony (what does he say?) to all nations, and then the end shall come.” Wow!
Now we get into some other matters that I hope to make clear to you. I know that this can get a little complicated, but as you listen to this series and we are like taking pieces of a puzzle and putting it together, it will make sense. I think I can promise that to you–not with the same kind of promise that God gives us for eternal life, but I think we can see our way clear as to how this might fit together.
Now Jesus said this in Matthew 24:15: “So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.” What is Jesus talking about here? The abomination of desolation! I want you to accept this scenario for now without me taking a lot of time to prove it, and that is that in Daniel 9 you have a man who is known as the prince who shall come, who clearly seems to be the antichrist. He makes a covenant with Israel that apparently guarantees their peace. At last we have somebody who can step into the Middle East and who can say to Israel, “War is over because I have enough power to guarantee your existence.” So during that period of time there is a period of relative peace. Nations begin to come together, and because of his power there is some stability in the world. During this period of time there is so much stability that even the temple in Jerusalem is rebuilt. Now if you asked me the question, “How can there possibly be a temple in Jerusalem when the Dome of the Rock is standing right there; how can there be a temple next to it?” Well my answer is that the message that I will give next time may give a plausible explanation to that. And also remember that as we talk about antichrist there is a message in this series just on him.
But now let’s look at the text. What is the abomination that makes desolate? Well, we discovered that in the middle of the tribulation period the antichrist finally shows his true colors. He goes to Jerusalem. He goes into that temple. He proclaims himself to be God. An image is set up in the temple that everybody is supposed to worship. It’s really a living image, an image that comes to life, and people all over the world (as we shall see) wander and say to themselves, “Look at what this beast has done,” and they begin to worship him. And that is the abomination of desolation. That is the ultimate insult to God, that for a little while Satan has what he’s always wanted, namely to duplicate God, and now he receives the worship of a great deal of the percentage of the people living on the earth. Some don’t. Many do. And at last Satan has his place right in the sanctuary of God. That’s what Jesus means when he says “the abomination of desolation in the holy place.” The temple evidently has been rebuilt, and Paul seems to confirm that in 2 Thessalonians where he says that the antichrist goes into the temple and proclaims himself to be God. So here we have this abomination of desolation–the ultimate sacrilege.
Now Jesus goes on and He says to flee when this happens. He says beginning in verse 16, “Let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let the one who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house, and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath. For then there will be (and here’s the phrase now) great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.”
What is Jesus saying? He is saying that when antichrist does that, ground zero of the holocaust that is about to begin is going to be Jerusalem. Get out of Jerusalem! That’s where the persecution of antichrist is going to be. That’s where the judgments are going to be headed. Flee! And do it as quickly as you can possibly can.
You say, “Well how are they going to live in the mountains?” You know, don’t even take any cloak with you or a coat, or don’t get your suit. In Revelation 12 there’s a very interesting story about Israel. Israel is likened unto a woman, and the Bible says that God takes that woman and takes her to the mountains and guards her and keeps her. God in some sense will protect Jewish believers during this period of time, and perhaps protect many members of the Jewish nation as they flee Jerusalem for the hills because the Bible says there in Revelation 12 that he’ll do it for 3-1/2 years. And so they are to flee. “Pray that your flight not be in winter. Pray it not be on the Sabbath, because you see, sacrifices will have begun at this temple at which, incidentally, the antichrist is going to stop because he is god and now there don’t have to be any sacrifices, and it could be that many Jews who are committed to Judaism, because they believe that you shouldn’t travel on a Sabbath day, will create a great deal of hindrance for those who want to flee the city.
Now it is during this period of time that you can take all of the judgments of the book of Revelation and you can put them right here during this 3-1/2 year period. All of the things that you read about all happen, as far as we know, during this period of time. That’s why Jesus says so clearly that there will be tribulation such as has never been in the world and will never be again, and if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short. You see, God needs people to go into the millennial kingdom in their earthly bodies. God wants to have people who are saved to the end of time rather than dying, and so the tribulation is cut short, because if not, you read Revelation and you are not surprised when Jesus said no human being would be saved unless God intervened.
And then Jesus said, “If someone says to you, ‘Look, here is Christ.” No there isn’t. Don’t believe it. Why do you think there is another emphasis here on false Christs? Well here is antichrist that proclaims himself to be God, and he has all kinds of emissaries who are running around saying he is God there in the temple, but I am his Christ. And Jesus said, “Don’t believe it.” I love this. He says, “If somebody says, ‘Well, he’s here in the wilderness. Don’t even go out.’ If they say, ‘Look, he’s in an inner room,’ don’t believe it,” because this time when Jesus comes, you won’t have to look for Him. He’s coming to you.
Notice what the text says. Revelation 24:27 says, “For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” Verse 29 to 31 say, “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then 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. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” Four winds means north, east, south and west – from all the different areas of the world. It takes your breath away, doesn’t it? Jesus is going to come, and if I haven’t told you this already, as you might guess a future message in this series is just on this glorious return of Christ because this is only one passage where it is mentioned.
And so during this period of time there is the glorious return of Jesus. What do we make of all of this? What is the bottom line? What should spring out into our minds as we read the text of this very solemn message? All this week I had heaviness in my heart as I was studying this passage because you know, it’s easy to speak about it, but it is difficult if you want to actually take it in and think about the future. So a couple of observations are very necessary.
First, the severity of God’s wrath and anger against sin! Even in evangelical circles today there is this idea that we should just emphasize the positive–how Jesus can make you a better husband, a better father, a better businessman, how He can partner with you in your vocation. Yes, He is all of that, but we have domesticated God. We have taken God and we have made Him into our image. We have made a God that we can live with who doesn’t like sin, but He’s not that upset as a result of it. We love grace, and grace is absolutely wonderful, and some people think it’s kind of nice to have it.
Please listen to me today when I say that the reason that grace for many people is not very amazing is because God’s anger against sin is not very amazing. So if you have a God who is very tolerant of sin, who puts up with it and winks at it, you need grace maybe, but you could probably do without it. You see, the reason that the gospel is so wonderful is because of the fact that Jesus bore the wrath of God for us and God really hates sin and is angry about sin. Old Testament, New Testament – the wrath of God, the wrath of God, the wrath of God! And we have made God into somebody who is very happy with the way we are. So something that comes out to me is that the extent of human suffering that is going to take place on this planet defies imagination. Simply read the plagues of Revelation, and as Jesus said, “Tribulation such as has never been and never will be on planet earth again.” What a future! And remember He said, “This must come to pass.”
There’s a second lesson, and this just comes at me as I read the Bible, and especially these passages, and that is what I want to call the great separation. The Bible always has the great separation. You go to the Garden of Eden and there are two trees. You find out that there are two sons. One is Jacob and the other is Esau and they go in different directions. One is saved and the other is lost. You get to the New Testament and there are two different paths–a narrow path that leads to life, and a broad way that leads to judgment. You find out, as we shall perhaps have opportunity to comment on in a future message, that you have the sheep and you have the goats, and I want to say, where is everybody who kind of fits in the middle? Where’s the middle here? You know-where is somebody who has never trusted Christ as savior but he’s pretty good? Where does he go? I mean, he’s not wicked, and yet when you read this, there is no middle. You are either on the side of Jesus because you have trusted Him, or you are on the other side, good though you may be in your own eyes. It’s just that clear. The great divide–the great separation!
Today here at The Moody Church if we could see into your hearts, the audience to whom I am speaking is divided, and only God knows where the division comes. It’s divided between those who will go into everlasting life, the Bible says, and then the others into everlasting damnation. It’s one or the other, so I have to ask you today, are you sure that you know that you have believed in Jesus in such a way that indeed He has forgiven your sin and you have come under His protection so that the wrath of God may no longer abide on you? That comes to you from my heart hopefully to your heart because we are talking here about very serious matters.
Jonathan Edwards is frequently criticized because of his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” In a different context I quoted most of his sermon to you. I shall not do that today but I do want to remind you of that story that comes to us from the prairie. Do you remember the days when prairie fires were devastating to farms and to old homesteads because if the grass went right up to the buildings it would just burn and everything would burn in its way? I’m told that what the farmers used to do when the wind was favorable on a nice day they would actually light all the grass around their buildings and burn it because as long as that grass was burned (they would burn huge patches), they knew that if a prairie fire came it would stop where the fire had already been.
The Bible says that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. It’s fearful. Read Revelation and see how fearful it really is, and the only way we can be exempt is to receive Christ as savior, because when we do, and God’s wrath begins to come in our direction, it is diverted because we have already been exonerated by Christ who bore our wrath for us. That is the gospel. Are you glad for that message of the gospel? (applause)
So that’s all I can say to you today. What side are you on when these events take place?
Father, we can hardly even imagine the regret that many people shall experience when they see the door to heaven slammed in their faces. We’re talking about good people, the people who are not ready when Jesus comes. Grant, oh God, we ask, that all who have listened to me right now if they do not know You as savior may they reach out and say, “Jesus, today I believe. I receive You as my savior.” You do the work that only You can do, Father, I pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.