The Islamic State have released another installment in their series of barbaric propaganda films. 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians were led along the shoreline in Libya where they were beheaded together.
In 2011 I wrote a book based on the premise that the call to martyrdom is at the heart of the call to follow Jesus and that it will be one of the preeminent signs of the times in the generation before the Lord returns.
The following article is Chapter Eight of my book Unto Death: Martyrdom, Missions and the Maturity of the Church in its entirety.
In this chapter (and much of the next), we are going to focus on the call to martyrdom at the end of the age.
The Church in the generation of the Lord’s return will be confronted with the issue of martyrdom in a dramatic way in the midst of a global “trouble such as never has been.” The scope and magnitude of this final hour of persecution will eclipse all those that have preceded it. The impact of this unparalleled violence will be such that believers from “every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” will suffer and lose their lives during the final “great tribulation.” Never in history has there been a period in which believers were slain in every nation within the same concentrated time frame.
The New Testament emphasis on martyrdom in the years leading up to Christ’s return is rather incredible. In most chapters where the main trends and events concerning the end of the age are introduced, the issue of martyrdom is mentioned. Understanding the centrality of this issue in relation to God’s eschatological purposes will be indispensable to the Church as she prepares to “stand” in the face of the coming storm.
While there are numerous passages that demonstrate the prominence of martyrdom in the end-times we are going to limit ourselves to Matthew 24:9-14. These verses contain a number of statements relevant to our study. But first, a few preliminary observations about Matthew 24-25 are in order.
While Matthew 24 and 25 are divided into two chapters in our Bible, it is one sermon that should be read and understood as a unified whole. It is often referred to as “The Olivet Discourse” as it was delivered on the Mount of Olives overlooking the city of Jerusalem. The central message of Matthew 24-25 is “the signs of the end of the age and [Jesus’] return” (24:3). It was spoken to young adults who desired to understand the consummation of natural history.
In verses 1-2, Jesus declared that the Temple would be destroyed. According to the Old Testament, the destruction of the Temple was the great event that was to signal the “time of the end” (Daniel 11:31; cf. 12:1-13) and the final “trouble such as never has been” (Daniel 12:1-7; Jeremiah 30:5-7; Matthew 24:15-31). This trouble will immediately precede the “salvation” (Jeremiah 30:5-7) and “deliverance” of Israel and the resurrection of the righteous “dead” (Daniel 12:1-3). As the disciples were aware of these prophecies, and understood that the destruction of the Temple and the “time of the end” were inextricably bound together (Daniel 12:1-13), they responded in verse 3 by asking “when” these events would come to pass and “what the signs” of their nearness would be. From 24:4 through to the end of chapter 25, Jesus answers their question.
Jesus’ response to their question can be divided into two sections: Prophetic Teaching (24:1-31) and Pastoral Teaching (24:32-25:46). Prophetically, Jesus declares trends and events. Then pastorally, He explains how we should live in light of those trends and events. For Jesus, the issue of the end of the age was clearly a pastoral issue. Sadly much of the Western Church does not agree with Him.
In the first (prophetic) section we find no use of metaphors, parables, or enigmatic teachings that we find elsewhere in the Gospels. In Matthew 24:1-31 Jesus speaks in plain language about literal events that would have their violent inception in “Judea” and touch “all nations” before “the end.” These thirty-one verses require no interpretation. They mean what they say. The second section is much different.
In the second (pastoral) section (Matthew 24:32-25:46) Jesus speaks in parables and metaphors saying, “the Kingdom of heaven is like…” He alludes to fig trees, the days of Noah, servants, virgins, sheep, goats, and more. These parabolic teachings were intended to complement the straightforward prophetic information given in 24:1-31.
When the plain meaning of the prophecy in the first half of Jesus’ sermon isn’t properly understood, the power and purpose of the parables will be lost. We mustn’t read these chapters as separate teachings on two different occasions and must be careful not to stress points within it that aren’t honoring to or harmonious with the sermon as a whole. Unfortunately, this happens all too often with this precious passage as ministers isolate a parable and apply it in a general way. Therefore, preachers and teachers should refrain from speaking on the parables and emphasizing their messages if they don’t understand and recognize the context in which they are to be read. Few passages have suffered as much abuse at the hands of ministers as Matthew 24-25. This is primarily because the text is so often inappropriately emphasized due to ignorance of the overall message. The parables and pastoral exhortations were all given in context to the “then” (25:1) and the “those days” (24:29) of the “birth pains” (24:8) and “great tribulation” (24:21) at “the end of the age” (24:3). This eschatological framework must be faithfully emphasized.
Below is a three-part outline of Matthew 24-25. This broad perspective is essential to a correct understanding of verses 9-14 and the issue of martyrdom.
1. Jesus’ Statement about the Temple and the Disciple’s Question (24:1-3)
a. Jesus Prophesies the Destruction of the Temple (24:1-2)
b. The Disciples Ask About the Signs of the End (24:3)
2. Jesus’ Answer: Prophetic Teaching
Trends and Events that Will Precede Jesus’ Return (24:4-31)
a. Global Social and Ecological Disturbances Called Birth Pains (24:4-8)
b. Social Pressures that Correspond to the Birth Pains (24:9-14)
c. The Commencement of the Great Tribulation (24:15-20)
d. The Unequaled Severity of the Great Tribulation (24:21-28)
e. The Conclusion of the Great Tribulation (24:29-31)
3. Jesus’ Answer: Pastoral Teaching
Seven Parables about Preparation (24:32-25:46)
a. The Fig Tree (24:33-35)
b. The Days of Noah (24:36-41)
c. The Thief (24:42-44)
d. The Faithful and Wise Servant (24:45-51)
e. The Ten Virgins and the Coming Bridegroom (25:1-13)
f. The Talents (25:14-30)
g. The Least of Jesus’ Brethren (25:31-46)
Now with the context clearly in view, let us focus on 24:9-14 where Jesus stresses the centrality and prominence of martyrdom in the generation of His return. After describing earthquakes, military conflict, famine, and social disturbance as the preliminary signs that would signal the early stages of the end-time crisis (“…these are but the beginning of the birth pains” [24:8]) Jesus said that
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. 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. 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. (Matthew 24:9-14)
The word “then” in verse 9 is important (see also 24:29 and 25:1). It gives us insight into the timing and nature of the outbreak of the final persecution of the saints. “Then” refers to the pressures that will be mounting in the nations as the frequency and intensity of “the birth pains” grip the Earth like a woman entering hard labor (“…the tribulation of those days.” [24:29]). “Then” refers to the climactic season of history that leads up to and culminates in the violent inception of “the great tribulation” (24:21-22) in “Judea” (24:15-16) and ultimately the bodily return of Jesus to the Earth.
“Then,” in that turbulent hour of mounting crisis, “tribulation,” “death,” “hatred,” “falling away,” “betrayal,” and “deception” will be the primary “signs” of the times. But make note of these two critical truths, dear saint: (1) this great violence is centered around Jesus’ name (“…for my name’s sake.”) and (2) this great violence will impact every nation (“…you will be hated by all nations.”). It is imperative that we observe and affirm both of these realities. The nature of the final conflict of the age-ending persecution is Christ-centered. And the scope of it will be unprecedented. On that note, it is important to address a potential stumbling block with regard to the nature of the Olivet Discourse.
There are many who argue that Matthew 24-25 was fulfilled in and around AD 70 with the Roman invasion of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. Many godly men and women believe this. They teach that the Olivet Discourse is not about the future concerning the end of this present age, but rather the past concerning the end of the Jewish age. Every believer who wishes to honor the Word of God should heartily reject this teaching. It is a false doctrine that will have serious consequences in the generation of the Lord’s return.
The fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 was not persecution against the Church. It was a military campaign against Israel. In fact, much of the Christian population of Judea fled to the surrounding wilderness regions when the invasions began and escaped the violence. Jesus taught that one of the most conspicuous trends and events that would distinguish the final unequaled tribulation (24:21-22) from the historical continuum of tribulation (Acts 14:22; Revelation 1:9) will be the concentrated persecution of believers for “[His] name’s sake.” The persecution spoken of in Matthew 24-25 that will impact “all nations.” The intellectual dishonesty required to apply such a prophecy finally and ultimately to AD 70 is astounding. Considering that the Great Commission had just begun three decades prior to the fall of Jerusalem, we should find it strange when a preacher claims that the trends and events described in the Olivet Discourse had their fulfillment in the first century. They most certainly did not.
These six verses (24:9-14) contain three monumental events that the Church among the nations must understand. While all three have already been introduced in a limited way, I want to acknowledge them individually as propositional truths and further expound upon their significance. We are going to work our way backwards from verse 14 to verse 9.
1. The Penetration of the Gospel in Every Nation (24:14)
Matthew 24:14 is an incredible prophecy that should bolster us with great courage and boldness. Jesus says that, “this Gospel of the Kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations . . .” It will! It must! There will come a day when every tribe, tongue, nation, and people group will have heard the name of Jesus and the wonder of the Gospel. Beloved, consider Matthew 24:14. The “whole world” will hear the Gospel. And “all nations” will receive a witness.
What’s more, Jesus declared that the penetration of the Gospel in every nation is one of the few conditions for “the end.” He has bound the issue of His return to the fate of the unreached. The two are inseparable—the one being contingent upon the other. According to Christ’s own word, He will not return until every tribe and tongue have heard “this Gospel of the Kingdom.”
While the number of unreached people groups at this present hour is not small (over six thousand), leaders of many of the largest missions organizations are stating confidently that the task can and most likely will be fulfilled within the lifetime of our children. Think about the significance of that. Your children could live to see the remaining unreached people groups engaged with the Gospel. We could be the generation that completes what the disciples began in Jerusalem two thousand years ago (Acts 1:8). If not us, then almost certainly our children. But either way, according to Matthew 24:14, we are on the threshold of the final “tribulation” (24:4-31) that will cover the Earth once the Gospel has penetrated these currently unreached and unengaged nations. Saint, this is no peripheral matter!
2. The Provocation of Global Hatred in Every Nation (24:9)
While the thought of engaging every tribe and tongue with the Gospel of the Kingdom in our lifetime should invigorate and excite us, it is important to observe the context in which the prophecy of 24:14 was given. The penetration of the Gospel into all nations will result in the provocation of all nations. While many from every tribe and tongue will turn and put their faith in Christ before His return, we must understand that this great ingathering of souls will come about in the midst of all the nations of the Earth raging.
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. 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.
Ponder these statements individually: “They will deliver you up.” “They will put you to death.” “You will be hated by all nations.” Note the words “they” and “all nations.” The final persecution of the Church will be a worldwide reality. “All nations” will “deliver up” believers and “put them to death.”
These are not ambiguous ideas. They are emphatic proclamations of global rage, worldwide violence, and unprecedented persecution. While some may find this difficult to believe considering the measure of safety enjoyed by Christians in much of the Earth at this time, the Word of God compels us to lean upon the sure word of prophecy and not our own reasoning based on present circumstances. The scope and magnitude of the Church’s end-time suffering as described in passages like these is staggering. The thought vexes the modern mind. We find it difficult to believe that such brutality and injustice could truly cover the Earth to this degree because of how progressive, sophisticated, and tolerant many nations are in which we live. But remember, dear reader, that the seedbed of one of the most gruesome atrocities in human history was Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. Arguably the most cultured and socially impressive nations on Earth dreamed up the systematic annihilation of European Jewry. The fact that the gross injustice of the Holocaust had its inception in the cultured society of twentieth-century Germany stands as an apologetic against those who would hastily dismiss the idea of global persecution in the future.
3. The Persecution of Believers in Every Nation (24:9)
The Gospel will penetrate every nation before Jesus returns. It is likely that it will occur within your lifetime or that of your children. And when it does, the greatest persecution that the Church has ever known will break out against believers in every nation. Jesus was clear: We will be hated by all nations. As a result, we will be persecuted in all nations. We must understand this, proclaim it, and prepare for it. The consequences of not preparing for this will be severe for us, and those we love.
The impact of the violence described in Matthew 24:9-14 will be “falling away” and “love growing cold.” As the Gospel penetrates unreached peoples and nations, many, by grace, through faith, will join themselves to Jesus. Yet in the midst of the overwhelming scourge, we are also told that many will wander away into apostasy due to the intense persecution at hand.
Due to the fact that persecution against Christians will break out in “all nations” with the advance of the Gospel “throughout the whole world,” those who turn to Christ in that hour will do so at the risk of martyrdom. Thus, as it was at the start so it will be at the end: that the call to Jesus will literally be a call to die. We would be hard pressed to exaggerate the seriousness of these realities and their relevance to the Church in the generation of the Lord’s return.
While on the island of Patmos, John was shown the magnitude of this coming season of persecution during the final tribulation. The vision was breathtaking.
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:9-14)
The scene is incredible. Men, women, and children from every nation, tribe, people, and language together in one accord declaring their great love for the One who redeemed them with His royal blood. Like a sea of faces stretching as far as the apostle’s eye could see, the congregation was innumerable. John had never seen so many people in one place and surely never from such diverse ethnic backgrounds. As he stood in awe of the sublime sight before him, one of the twenty-four elders approached him and asked whether he knew where these robed saints had come from. The elder knew the answer, but he wanted to make sure John knew. And he wanted to make sure that we know. So he answered his own question, saying, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation.” The “great tribulation” is not the same as the historic “tribulation” spoken of in Revelation 1:7 or in 2:9, that historical continuum of suffering that the Church has faced since the beginning. The tribulation from which that innumerable multitude will emerge is the same “great tribulation” that Jesus spoke about in Matthew 24:9-31; it is that tribulation which begins with global “birth pains” and the “desolation” of Jerusalem, and culminates in the shaking of the cosmos and the bodily return of Jesus to the Earth. Take careful note of how Jesus described it.
For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. 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. (Matthew 24:21-22)
That hour of tribulation will be entirely unprecedented in scope and magnitude. It will require Jesus’ physical intervention to bring it to a close. Yet out of it the Church of Jesus Christ will give the greatest martyr-witness she has ever had the privilege to give. The Church will not be a passive spectator of that hour, having escaped beforehand in a secret rapture. No. The Church will come out of that tribulation having given a faithful martyr-witness in the midst of it.
Martyrdom will be a premier sign of the times in the generation of the Lord’s return. As the Church, we must faithfully declare it and prepare accordingly. In the next chapter, we will delve further into the subject of martyrdom in an eschatological context in order to show how God intends to bring His people into maturity through the crucible of persecution and suffering.
Dalton Thomas is a Bible teacher, author, film maker and pioneer missionary. Dalton founded Frontier Alliance International in 2012 to help train, equip and mobilize missionaries to serve in various mission fields in the Middle East. Dalton has authored two books The Controversy of Zion and the Time of Jacob’s Trouble (2011) and Unto Death Martyrdom, Missions, and the Maturity of the Church (2012). Dalton is also a gifted photographer and film maker. He has produced two momentous film projects in Better Friends Than Mountains and Covenant & Controversy.
Dalton is married with three sons and resides in the United States. For more information and free resources, visit daltonthomas.org.
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