THE COURSE OF HISTORY
by Bob Wheeler
One might hope that the preaching of the gospel would be met with universal acceptance. After all, what could be more welcome than the “good news” of salvation? But that, unfortunately, is not the situation, as Jesus pointed out to His disciples.
In a remarkable passage of Scripture, Jesus’ Olivet Discourse, recorded in Matthew chapters 24 and 25, Jesus told how history would unfold. He was in Jerusalem with His disciples shortly before His arrest and crucifixion. And as He laid out for them what the future holds He painted a grim picture indeed. We are engaged in a spiritual war, and as the Christian goes through life he is beset with trials and difficulties on every hand.
One problem confronting the Christian is spiritual impostors. “Take heed that no one deceive you. For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many” (Matt. 24:4,5; NKJV). Down through history there have been a variety of cult leaders, some of them even claiming to be the Messiah Himself. Sadly, some of them have attracted large followings, misleading countless sincere but naïve people.
Then there is the external threat of war, political turmoil, and natural disasters. “And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars . . . and there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places . . .” (vv. 6,7). Christians do not live in isolation from the rest of human society, and are inevitably affected by the turmoil around them. Yet in all of these things Jesus says “See that you are not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet” (v. 6). Indeed, all these things are merely “the beginning of sorrows” (v. 8). The word translated “sorrows” literally means “birth-pangs” (NASV) or “birth-pains” (NIV;ESV). The idea is that of labor pains that intensify as we get closer to the end.
But then there is the specter of outright persecution. “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name’s sake” (v. 9). This is admittedly hard for American Christians to imagine. We have enjoyed the blessing of religious freedom for as long as we can remember, and it is hard for us to conceive of Christians being persecuted for their faith. Yet we are a historical anomaly. For most of the history of the church persecution has been the norm. Those who truly feared God and refused to conform to the prevailing social system were often subjected to arrest, imprisonment, torture, and even execution. Such, we are told elsewhere, is the lot of “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus . .” (II Tim. 3:12).
What is especially sad, however, is what occurs inside the church itself during times of persecution. First of all there are those who will betray their fellow Christians. “And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another” (v. 10). The word translated “be offended” literally means “stumble” or “made to stumble.” Faced with persecution many within the church will be intimidated, renounce the faith, and turn on their former friends.
In addition to this there is the threat of false teaching. “Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many” (v. 11). In some quarters today it is common to dismiss doctrine as irrelevant and unnecessarily divisive. Granted, some doctrine is irrelevant and divisive. But false doctrine poses a very real threat to the spiritual health and vitality of the church. It can only lead us astray from Christ and from doing His will. And the tragic victims of false teaching are the common, ordinary folk who are susceptible to deception.
The effect of all of these developments is spiritual decline. “And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold” (v. 12). In times of social and cultural upheaval there is a rise in lawlessness. Established norms and standards disappear, and there is a disregard for truth. Sadly, this has a negative impact on the church itself. People cease to care about God. They neglect to seek His will. They become preoccupied with their own selfish aims and desires. The church falls into a state of spiritual apathy. Is this not an apt description of our own times?
And what is the point of all of this? Jesus states I in verse 13: “But he who endures to the end shall be saved.” The word translated “endures” suggests holding fast under trials and sufferings. God has not called us to a life of ease. The Christian life is filled with trials and tribulations that put our faith sorely to the test. The true believer in Jesus Christ, however, endures to the end.
In spite of all this the gospel goes forth, and people are saved. “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations . . .” (v. 14). While the gospel was eclipsed for a while during the Middle Ages, it reemerged during the Protestant Reformation. Gradually, in the 18th Century, the modern missions movement emerged and the gospel was spread throughout the world. By the late 20th Century Billy Graham was preaching to millions in every corner of the globe.
History has unfolded, then, just as Jesus said it would. As the western world now turns its back on Christianity the world will soon be ready for the final drama – the final death struggle between good and evil, and the Last Judgment.