This week began with the death of a friend from church. It ends with the horrific scenes of the damage from the tsunami that hit Japan. Meanwhile the conflict in Libya continues. And we are still trying to come to terms with the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, the Pakistani Minister of Minority Affairs. It has been a Matthew 24 week.
As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.
“Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” (Matthew 24:3-14 NIV)
I don’t need to be a prophet to predict that there will be those who will give us what they believe to be God’s specific reasons for the tsunami that hit Japan and how it impacts the timing of Jesus’ Second Coming. But if we are to take Jesus at His word, we are not encouraged to speculate on the actual time of His Second Coming or to read too much into signs (Matthew 24:36-44). All we are told is that certain things will happen as reminders that He will return to usher in the Kingdom of God in its fullness, bringing with it the promise of healing and wholeness for all creation. Craig L. Blomberg comments:
Like a woman’s contractions before her labor and delivery, these preliminary events remind one of the nearness and inevitability of Christ’s return. But just as a woman may experience false labor and just as genuine contractions still leave her uncertain about the exact time of delivery, so too the events of vv. 4-8 do not enable us to predict the time of Christ’s coming . . . Yet in spite of all these disasters and difficulties, Christians must not be alarmed; the end is still to come. Brunner makes the pastoral comment, “In times of crisis, Christians should be the calmest people on the block because they have a dominical pax (divine peace). “ (Matthew, Nashville, TN:Broadman Press, 1992,354).
As a man, I will never have the privilege of experiencing the mystery of carrying a child and of giving birth. I was present at the birth of my second child and I remember the pain, the blood, time that seemed to go on and on, and finally the joy of welcoming a new life into the world. When Jesus compares His coming with childbirth, He gives us a perspective to understand the pains of this world. They are a reminder that He will come again. Unlike religions that see life as going around in circles, or those that believe that things will just go on and on without end, Jesus tells us that, as a baby comes at the end of a pregnancy, He will surely come again. Birth pangs may be painful but they are a potent reminder of what lies at the end of it all.
But what are we to do in the meantime? Jesus calls His people to stand firm and to be vigilant. We need to hold firm to the gospel and to the demands of the gospel. This does not mean we are called to dramatic heroic deeds. Often it may just mean that we are faithful to our daily duties — we do our work, we raise our families, we bless our friends. Once in a while, being faithful will mean giving our lives, like Shahbaz Bhatti. But faithful we must be. “Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful” (Corinthians 4:2 NIV).
In the midst of birth pains, Jesus also assumes that we will be faithfully preaching the gospel of the Kingdom. It is good to be reminded that the gospel is about a kingdom — not just about buying some spiritual life insurance that kicks in when we die. God is going to usher in a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1-4). “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4 NIV). We call people to an allegiance to the King so that we can be part of His coming Kingdom.
The pains of our world belong to the old order. They serve a purpose in pointing us back to the past, a reminder of the tragedy where humankind rejected their rightful King. But they also point us toward the future, when the rightful King will come back and make all things right again. In the meantime, they call us to be faithful.
I read that the death toll from the tsunami may be as high as 1,600. I find it hard to put my mind around a figure like that. I also hear that there has been an explosion at a nuclear plant in an area affected by the tsunami. My heart is numbed. But I pray. I ask the Lord what I can do to help. I hope that somehow the tragedies point people to the Lord. And I do something I rarely do. I echo John’s prayer in Revelation 22:20 — “Come Lord Jesus!”