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The Beginning of Sorrows


‘The Beginning of Sorrows’ – Matthew 24.8


Just before the crucifixion, Jesus was asked by the disciples, ‘What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’ (Matthew 24.3). The use of the Greek word ‘eon’ / age implies that the second coming of Jesus is not the end of the world, as some people think, but the end of the present age. The Bible teaches that following His second coming there will be a new age in which He will reign on the earth for 1000 years (Revelation 20.4-6). During this time Satan will be bound and unable to deceive the nations and there will be universal peace and justice (Isaiah 2.1-4, 11.1-12).


Replying to the disciples’ question Jesus said, ‘You will hear of wars and rumours of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.’ In this verse Jesus is not really giving a sign of His second coming, but the conditions generally during the whole of the age between His first and second coming. For the Jewish disciples of Jesus the idea that the coming of the Messiah could be followed by a period of wars and rumours of wars did not really fit. The Jewish hope of the Messiah coming was that He would bring in the time of international peace described by Isaiah 2.4: ‘They (the nations) shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’


However Jesus’ purpose at His first coming was to fulfil Isaiah 53 and to die as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. In Isaiah 53.6, 8 we read: ‘All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way. And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. … He was cut off from the land of the living. For the transgression of my people He was stricken.’ In this age Messiah offers peace to the individual who turns to Him in repentance and faith: ‘He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed.’ Isaiah 53.5.


He does not offer world peace until His second coming. The prophecy of Daniel 9.26 shows that there would be wars following Messiah’s first coming: ‘Messiah shall be cut off (die a violent death) but not for himself (not for His own sins, but for the sins of others); and the people of the prince who is to come (the Romans) shall destroy the city and the sanctuary (Jerusalem and the Temple – this happened in 70CE when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem). The end of it shall be with a flood (invasion) and till the end of the war desolations are determined.’ In other words following Messiah coming to die for the sins of the world, the Temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed and there would be a long period of wars and desolations. Jesus also prophesied the destruction of the Temple (Luke 19.41-44) and said that Jerusalem will be ‘trodden down of the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.’ Luke 21.24.


Although there would be wars and troubles throughout the whole period between the first and second coming of Jesus, an intensification of wars happening will be a sign of the second coming: ‘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.’ Matthew 24.7-8.


The word used for nation here is ‘ethnos’ from which we have the word ethnic. This implies conflicts within nations by people of different racial or religious background. Kingdom against kingdom implies conflicts between nations, particularly blocks of nations in conflict (i.e. world wars). This will be the sign of the ‘beginning of sorrows’.


These are the events which will lead up to the great tribulation period which Jesus describes in Matthew 24.21-2: ‘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.’ The great tribulation will be a time of such intense trouble that if God did not cut it short it would mean that no flesh (life) would be saved. In other words it would be the end of the world with all life destroyed. Clearly we are not in the great tribulation at present. This unique time of trouble is described in Revelation 6-19. We are however in the time of the beginning of sorrows.


In the last 100 years there has been a great increase in conflict claiming around 160,000,000 lives in wars fought during the 20th century (information from ‘Wars and Genocides of the 20th Century by Piero Scaruffi, ). There have been civil wars, massacres of people because of racial or religious origin and purges of opponents to totalitarian regimes.


Major examples of these are: the Turkish massacre of the Armenians (1,200,000 killed in 1915), the civil war, purges and conflicts following the Communist revolution in Russia (about 25,000,000 killed between 1917-37), the Nazi Holocaust (6,000,000 Jews plus about 6,000,000 others killed in concentration camps between 1939-45), the partition of India and Pakistan (1,000,000 killed in 1947), the Chinese Communist revolution and subsequent events – Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ and Cultural Revolution – (about 50,000,000 killed between 1946-69), North Korea purges and concentration camps (about 1,600,000 killed between 1948-94), Nigeria – Biafra civil war (800,000 killed between 1967-70), Pakistan – Bangladesh civil war (500,000 killed in 1971), Ethiopian civil war (1,500,000 killed between 1974-91), Khmer Rouge massacres in Cambodia (1,700,000 killed – about a quarter of the population – between 1975-9), Sudanese civil war (2,000,000 killed between 1983-2002), Rwanda civil war (900,000 killed in 1994), Yugoslavia’s civil war (260,000 between 1992-6), Congo / Zaire war (3,800,000 between 1998-present). All these figures are approximate.


In addition to conflicts within nations there have been great conflicts between nations in particular world wars since 1914. In the First World War about 8-9 million died. Out of this war came the conditions which gave rise to the Second World War in which about 55 million died. Out of this war came the Cold War which could be described as the Third World War and which spawned numerous conflicts around the world. For example the Korean War (1950-53) in which 4,000,000 died, the Vietnam War (1964-73) in which 3,000,000 died, as well as numerous conflicts in Africa, Asia and South America. The Cold War nearly became hot at the time of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 when the world stood on the brink of a nuclear holocaust which would have destroyed civilisation and possibly all life on earth. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and following war (1979-88) caused 1,300,000 to die and was a defeat for Soviet power and contributed to the collapse of Communism and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. This signalled the end of the Cold War, but the next conflict was soon at hand. In 1991 the first Gulf War caused by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait brought the US led coalition into the Middle East. American troops stationed in Saudi Arabia were a major cause of the attack on America by al Qaeda terrorists on 9/11 2001. This then led to the ‘War on Terror’ which could be described as the Fourth World War, with the US led coalition invading Afghanistan and Iraq.


It can be seen that all these conflicts led one into another and are threatening the future of the world. This ties in with the passage in the Bible which compares the last days period with the pains of a woman in labour (1 Thessalonians 5.3). When a woman goes into labour a process begins which cannot be reversed until the birth of the child. The process involves ever increasing contractions which become more intense the nearer you get to the birth of the child. So with the end time scenario once a certain process has been set in motion it cannot be reversed until the climax which in this case is the return of the Lord Jesus Christ. The process will produce a series of shocks which will become more intense the nearer you get to this climax.


So far I have not mentioned the conflict which will bring about the return of the Lord Jesus. What is fascinating to observe is that the world wars have had a bearing on the return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel and Jerusalem becoming the focal point of world attention for the end times.


During the First World War in 1917 two major events took place within a few weeks of each other, shaping the history of our time. The Bolshevik Revolution brought the Communists to power in the Soviet Union. The British took Jerusalem from the Turks and made the Balfour Declaration – ‘His Majesty’s government views with favour the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.’ After the First World War in 1919 the League of Nations was set up with the idea of preventing future wars. So we saw the rise of the antichristian force of Communism, the preparing of the way for the establishment of Israel as a Jewish homeland and the first (unsuccessful) attempt to bring the nations together in the cause of world peace.


Out of the ashes of the terrible destruction of the Second World War came the establishment of the United Nations in 1945, and the decision by the UN to partition Palestine in 1947. This made it possible for Israel to become a nation in 1948 when David Ben Gurion announced to the world that Israel was a sovereign nation again. The words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘Shall a nation be born in a day?’ (Isaiah 66.8) came to pass. Israel’s wars with her Arab neighbours in 1948, 56, 67 and 73 became a part of the Cold War with the western powers generally backing Israel and the Soviet Union backing the Arabs against Israel. In 1967 Israel gained control of the Old City of Jerusalem, and General Dayan announced, ‘We have regained our holiest places never again to depart.’ The stage was set for the fulfilment of the prophecy of Zechariah 12.2-3 as Jerusalem became the ‘burdensome stone’ burdening all nations, the object of more UN resolutions than any other world situation.


At the time of the Yom Kippur War in 1973 there was a near confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States when Israeli forces broke through the Egyptian and Syrian lines and were on the way to Cairo and Damascus. Soviet President Brezhnev threatened that the Soviet Union would intervene which caused President Nixon to put the US on a full nuclear alert. The potential for this local conflict to drag in the nations of the world took on a new dimension when the OPEC oil producing countries led by Saudi Arabia instituted the oil blockade to put pressure on the western nations supportive of Israel.


Out of these events arose a sense of anger and shame in the Arab / Muslim world that the Jewish people, whom they considered to be inferior ‘dhimmis’ (protected people under Islam), were defeating Arab Muslim armies and occupying land, especially Jerusalem, which the Muslims considered to be ‘Islamic space.’ This in turn gave rise to Islamic fundamentalism as the answer to these defeats. Part of the reasoning was that Allah permitted Israel to defeat Arab armies because the Muslims were not pious enough. So if they returned to pure Islam they would be victorious. In 1979 the Islamic Revolution took over Iran and brought the most extreme form of Shiite Islam into power into what had once been a friendly country to the west. This was followed by the Iran – Iraq war in which about 1,000,000 died. The US backed secular Iraq led by Saddam Hussein against Islamic fundamentalist Iran. However when Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990 the US led coalition brought troops to fight him from around the world. They entered the region of ancient Babylon, which today contains the vast oil reserves on which the economies of the world system depend.


Now we have a world situation in which the prophecies of the Bible are unfolding before our eyes. Jerusalem is the ‘burdensome stone burdening all nations’ as Zechariah said it would be in chapter 12 verse 2-3 of his prophecy. It is the object of the whole world’s attention and the subject of more UN resolutions than any other conflict in the world, despite the fact that the number of casualties in Arab – Israeli wars is relatively small in comparison with some of the other conflicts mentioned above (about 70,000 in all the Arab-Israeli wars between 1947-73).


The Babylon / Iraq / Persian Gulf region, vital to the whole world because of oil, is the scene of intense conflict which affects all nations. Prophecies in Isaiah 13 speak of armies coming from distant nations to fight over Babylon in the last days of this age. The potential for Iraq to fall apart into civil war between its Sunni and Shiite Muslim citizens is the nightmare scenario which could drag in the neighbouring countries, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Turkey.


At the moment the world is on a knife edge. No politician has a working plan to sort out the mess. Apart from the Middle East situation, the UN has warned that up to 30 countries could be on their way to acquiring nuclear weapons. Truly this is the time of the beginning of sorrows, and the direction humanity is travelling in is a catastrophic one.


The only hope for the world is the return of the true Messiah Jesus. He told His disciples at the time of His arrest: ‘Put away your sword, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.’ (Matthew 26.52). Because of human rejection of the message of the Gospel, we have reached this pitiful state in human history. The human race has come a long way from Cain who killed his brother, to modern man with his monstrous killing machines, concentration camps and massacres. But it is the same principle. Because we don’t obey God and sin against our fellow human beings we are on the brink of bringing mass destruction to the planet He gave us to look after.


But Jesus said ‘When these things begin to happen (and they have begun to happen), look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near.’ Luke 21.28. There is a hope if we repent and believe the Gospel. Then we will have a place in the glorious new world that will come to pass when Jesus returns and war is abolished and ‘they shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain for the earth is full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.’ (Isaiah 11.9).