Showdown in Jerusalem: The Rise & Fall of the Antichrist

Matthew 24:15-28

"We have more reason to believe that Christ could come in our generation than any generation which ever lived.” Tim LaHaye

I agree with Tim LaHaye. When you consider the reestablishment of the nation of Israel in 1948, the rapid move toward a united Europe, the development of a global economy and a global communications system, the rise of the Internet, the current tensions in the Middle East, the terrorist attacks that have shaken our false sense of security, the anthrax scare, the specter of biological warfare, the search for Osama bin Laden, the new powers given to the government by the latest antiterrorism bill just signed into law by President Bush—when you consider all these things in light of the moral and spiritual climate of our times, it is not difficult to believe nor hard to imagine that Jesus might come back in our generation. Certainly the coming of Christ is closer today than ever before.

How to Interpret Bible Prophecy

Are we really the Terminal Generation? No one knows the answer to that question. But it is not wrong to think about it in light of all that has happened in recent days. Whenever we study Bible prophecy, it helps to keep two principles in mind:

1) Whenever possible, we ought to interpret Bible prophecy literally. This is not to say that there aren’t images and figures of speech in prophetic literature. But those images and figures are put there to point us to substantial realities behind the dreams and visions that the prophets saw. It is amazing to consider how many Bible prophecies were fulfilled literally, even those that may have seemed fantastic and impossible when they were given. As we read about the “four horsemen” of Revelation 6, just remember that each man on a horse points to a specific truth that will be revealed in the end times. The same principle holds true for Matthew 24-25. The words of Jesus ought to be taken in their literal, normal sense even when we don’t know with certainty how they will be fulfilled in the future.

2) Bible prophecy ought to lead to our comfort and spiritual edification. It is not God’s purpose to titillate us with details about the future. We are told enough so that we know the broad outlines of what it is come. We are not told precise dates nor is the identity of the key players revealed. If all we get out of studying prophecy is the parlor game Name the Antichrist, then we’ve missed the larger point. These truths were given for our comfort and our spiritual growth.

With that in mind, we return to Matthew 24. This is the second message in the series The Last Days According to Jesus. Last week we learned about six “signs” of the Second Coming that are actually “signs” of the entire age in which we are living (Matthew 24:1-14). In today’s text Jesus gives us one crucial sign of the Second Coming that involves a person, a place, and a particular event. When this event happens, the coming of Christ is almost at hand. The key text is Matthew 24:15-28 and the focus is on the person commonly called the Antichrist. These verses contain extremely somber language. Jesus speaks in dark tones about the difficult days at the end of the age. It will help us as we study this passage to reflect that what happens in the last days is the logical climax of humanism. This is what the world comes to when it turns away from God. Just before Jesus returns, a world ruler will arise who, with an arrogance unmatched in history, will take a step that plunges the world into a time of distress unlike anything yet seen on planet earth.

A Quick Primer on the Antichrist

Before we go any further, let’s lay out a brief description of what we mean when we refer to “the Antichrist.” The Antichrist is a man who will appear on the world scene in the last days before the return of Jesus Christ to the earth. Described in both the Old and New Testaments, he will be the very incarnation of evil cleverly disguised as a dynamic, charismatic, visionary leader. He will astound the world with his solutions to human problems. His empire will span every continent and his rule will be the most demonic the world has ever experienced. He will rise to world domination by declaring himself a Man of Peace but will later plunge the world into global war. Eventually his true character will be revealed. He will be opposed to Jesus Christ and will offer himself to the world as the savior of humanity. He will control the global economy and force his followers to receive a mark on their hand or their foreheads. Most of the world will willingly follow him. To use a biblical phrase, they will “believe a lie and be damned” (cf. II Thessalonians 2:11-12 KJV). Those who do not receive the mark will be hunted down and many will be killed. For a short period of time he will become the most powerful man on earth. At the apex of his power he will launch an all-out attack on Jesus Christ at a place called Megiddo in the valley of Jezreel in the central region of Israel. That battle is known in the Bible as Armageddon. His reign of terror will come to a sudden end when he is destroyed by the Lord Jesus Christ as he returns to the earth to set up his kingdom.

Osama bin Laden????

On a radio interview in Albuquerque, New Mexico this week, a caller asked me if Osama bin Laden could be the Antichrist. I think the answer is a definite no. Whatever else you can say about him, he is not a “Man of Peace” beloved by people the world over. The Antichrist will not seem evil at first. He will rise to power as a popular, persuasive, well-liked leader who promises to end terrorism and who promotes one-world religion, one-world economy, and a one-world government. His message will be unity, peace and safety. Only later will his true character be revealed.

Many people wonder how the Antichrist could come to worldwide power in the last days. How would anyone follow such a person? Perhaps we have a mental image of him as some kind of crazed, wild-eyed, unkempt lunatic from a horror movie with long stringy hair, an ax in one hand and a machine gun in the other. But the reality will be far different. The Antichrist is not an escapee from a mental institution. To the contrary, he will appear to be the very leader the world has been looking for. I’m sure he will be well educated, urbane, witty, warm, and very charismatic. He will claim to have your best interests at heart. That’s why the world will welcome him. He will be an appealing person and his abilities will be extraordinary in every sense of the word.

Here’s my personal theory of what he will be like. He will have the …

Good looks of John Kennedy,

Folksiness of Ronald Reagan,

Inspirational power of Winston Churchill,

Leadership of Franklin Roosevelt,

Vision of Abraham Lincoln,

Military prowess of Douglas MacArthur,

Respectability of Gandhi,

Charm of Will Rogers,

Genius of Albert Einstein.

All those attributes will be wrapped up in one irresistible human personality. And to top it all off, he will be wholly and totally energized by Satan. He is the ultimate “angel of light” masquerading for a time as a benevolent leader. Soon enough the truth will come out.

I. Desecration v. 15

“So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand” (Matthew 24:15).

This crucial verse deserves our close attention. The phrase “when you see” means that whatever Jesus is talking about will be a public and visible event. It will be so obvious that no one can miss it. “Standing in the holy place” can only be a reference to the rebuilt temple in Jerusalem. The “abomination that causes desolation” refers to a deliberate act of profaning the holy sanctuary of the temple in Jerusalem. It is an act of outrageous sacrilege done deliberately and publicly. “Spoken of through the prophet Daniel” refers primarily to Daniel 9:24-27. The phrase “let the reader understand” means, “Here’s a message you need to ponder.”

What is the “abomination that causes desolation?” It is some sort of public act that takes place in the temple on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem that causes the godly to desert the temple and flee the city of Jerusalem. Daniel 11 offers us an historical example. In 168 BC a ruler named Antiochus Ephiphanes (meaning “Antiochus the Shining One") erected an altar to Zeus above the brazen altar and sacrificed a pig on it. Then he forced the Jewish priests to eat the pig meat. For that act alone, he is often called “the Antichrist of the Old Testament.”

The Apostle Paul wrote about the coming “abomination that causes desolation” in II Thessalonians 2:3-4, “Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.” The coming “man of lawlessness” refers to the Antichrist of the last days. He will set himself up in the temple in Jerusalem, will claim to be God, and will demand that the entire world worship him. Those who worship him will be given the “mark of the beast” on the hand or the forehead. Those who refuse the “mark of the beast” will be persecuted and many will be put to death.

As a side note, I believe the literal fulfillment of this prophecy demands that the Jewish temple be rebuilt on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Today the Dome of the Rock (the third holiest site in Islam) stands where the temple must be built. If anyone tried to tear down the Dome of the Rock, they would risk igniting World War III. Perhaps the Antichrist will come to power by somehow guaranteeing the right of the Jews to rebuild their temple on the Temple Mount.

By putting these things together, we have a clear picture of the “abomination of desolation.” It happens at the midpoint of the seven-year tribulation period when the Antichrist enters the temple in Jerusalem, stops the regular sacrifices, proclaims himself as God, and demands that people worship him.

This event yet future to us contains truth we need to ponder. This brazen act of idolatry represents the final triumph of secular humanism. By setting himself up as God, the Antichrist speaks for the human race in rebellion against its creator. No more God! “I am the master of my fate, the captain of my soul.” This is the logical climax of pure naturalism and of humanism set free from any restraints. Left to himself, man confirms that he is God and that God (if there is a God at all) is no longer necessary.

II. Danger vv. 16-20

“Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let no one on the roof of his house go down to take anything out of the house. Let no one in the field go back to get his cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath” (Matthew 24:16-20).

This is God’s evacuation plan for those who live in or near Jerusalem during the Tribulation period. It’s like an Emergency Warning Message from the weather service: “Alert! A tornado is approaching Sheffield, Alabama. If you are outside, seek shelter immediately. Do not attempt to drive to safety or you will be killed.” Those who live in other towns may safely ignore that warning, but if you live in Sheffield, you’d better find a safe place before the tornado hits. Something similar is happening in these verses. This is a very specialized, very particular warning to those living in or near Jerusalem in the last days. Although the Antichrist will have worldwide power, he will center his attention on Jerusalem. And although his influence will touch those living in Australia, Brazil and the United Arab Emirates, the greatest danger will be faced by those in and around Jerusalem. This warning reminds us that the Antichrist hates the Lord, hates the Jews, and hates all Christians, too. The Jewish people who may have felt safe following him as the “Man of Peace” will soon find out how wrong they were.

These verses are unusual because the New Testament usually tells us to endure hardship for Jesus’ sake. But in this case, the danger is so great that God’s message is, “Hit the road fast and don’t look back!”

On our recent trip to New York City, we heard about a woman who came up out of the subway just after the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. Not knowing what had happened, she was startled to see thousands of people running in panic down the street. Instinctively, she took off her shoes and started running with them. After she had run 13 blocks, she finally asked someone, “Why are we running?” The answer came back: “Just keep running for your life.” There are times when that is perfectly good advice, times when fast action requires that we go quickly, go without delay, and go without looking back.

III. Distress vv. 21-22

“For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again. If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened” (Matthew 24:21-22).

The final days before the return of Christ will be the greatest period of distress in world history. Nothing before or after will be like it. Take all the trauma of all the wars of all the ages and add to it the damage done by all the earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, tornadoes, tidal waves, snowstorms, sandstorms, droughts, epidemics, and all the genocide from the beginning of time until the present. All of it together will not equal the suffering of the final months and years before the coming of the Lord. As terrible as things have been, the worst is yet to come.

And it is only for the sake of the elect, those true believers in Jesus who come to faith during the last days, that the Tribulation comes to an end. Even in wrath, God displays his mercy. He still protects and delivers his people.

IV. Deception vv. 23-27

“At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect—if that were possible. See, I have told you ahead of time. So if anyone tells you, ‘There he is, out in the desert,’ do not go out; or, ‘Here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Matthew 24:23-27).

The last days of this age will be marked by an enormous spiritual deception. We will see an outbreak of false religion far beyond anything that has happened before. There will be a convergence of New Age deception, ancient paganism, liberalism, humanism, Satanism, relativism, and hedonism, aided by the promotion of homosexuality, abortion, terrorism, the denial of the Bible as the Word of God, and the denial of Jesus as the only way of salvation.

Even now powerful forces are working to mislead us. It is easy and becoming easier in these days to follow wrong voices. In our confusion and anger, we are eager for someone, anyone, to show us the way. In times like these, we need an anchor and a firm foundation.

Many will say, “We have the answer.” “We know the truth.” They will claim to know where Christ is and will claim to have the secret of spiritual insight. They may say, “Get out of the big cities and go to Wyoming. You’ll be safe there.” Oh really? “Don’t get on a plane. Ride a bus. That will be safe.” Oh really?

Do you know who John Edward is? He’s the gifted, charismatic, good-looking young man who claims to be able to contact the spirits of the dead. His book, Crossing Over, is currently Number 47 on the bestseller list. Millions of people have seen him on the Larry King show and many have been amazed as he repeatedly seems to be able to make contact with loved ones who have “crossed over” to the other side. Invariably, the deceased send back the same message: “We love you and we’re all doing fine over here. Don’t worry about us.” Never any messages about eternal judgment or warnings about hell. As I have watched him on television, I have been struck by how “normal” he seems. After the September 11 attacks, he held private group meetings for families of those who lost loved ones in the World Trade Center disaster, claiming to have messages from those who died when the towers collapsed. Although those sessions were taped for future broadcast, after a storm of controversy last week about it being in bad taste, the producers announced that those episodes will not be aired.

The popularity of John Edward points in two directions. It tells us that there is an inescapable yearning in the human heart to know what happens when we die. Death is truly the last enemy. And it shows us the enormous spiritual confusion in our day. I do not doubt that John Edward is talking to someone, but it’s the voice of demons, not the voice of the dead.

Note also that these spiritual counterfeiters will work satanic miracles in the last days. They will thereby convince many to believe their false words and to follow their false teaching.

Verse 27 reminds us that when Jesus returns to the earth at the end of the Tribulation, everyone will know about his coming. Unlike the Rapture, when Christ meets the saints in the air before the Tribulation (I Thessalonians 4:13-18), the coming of Christ to the earth will be like a bright flash of lightning. No will be able to mistake it because everyone will see him then. We won’t need CNN to file any “Special Reports” because the Lord himself will announce his own coming with a blast of a mighty trumpet.

V. Destruction v. 28

“Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather” (Matthew 24:28).

Here is a verse you’ll never see on a Christmas card. It’s a proverb from the first century that is easily understandable 2000 years later. When you see vultures circling in the sky, you know there must be a dead body nearby. In this case, the dead body is the world itself and the vultures represent the final judgment of God on a society that has rejected him utterly. It pictures the total destruction at the end of the Tribulation period as the catastrophic judgments of the Book of Revelation are poured out one after another—the seals, the trumpets, and finally the bowls. Death, famine, pestilence, the sea turned to blood, hundreds of millions dead, massive earthquakes, the complete dissolution of the world system that set itself up against the Lord and against his anointed (see Psalm 2). This is the world the Antichrist controls, a world falling apart at the seams even as he gathers his armies for one massive assault on the God of the universe. It is fitting that our passage ends with this powerful image because the next few verses describe the coming of Christ to the earth in power and great glory. Do not miss the contrast. When the world has become rotten with evil, Jesus triumphantly returns.

Three Crucial Principles

As we ponder the revelation of the mighty end times ruler called the Antichrist, here are three truths that arise from this passage:

A. Jerusalem has always been the center of the earth and will be once again in the last days.

God still loves Jerusalem and still considers it the most important city on earth. It is still the apple of his eye. That may seem disconcerting to those of us accustomed to thinking about other, more populous, more important cities, such as New York, Singapore, Nairobi, Mexico City, London, Rome, Moscow, or Tokyo, to name only a few. But those cities are important only from a worldly perspective. Their claim to fame has to do with population, geography, commerce, financial power, or political influence. But none of them alone or all of them together can rival the importance of Jerusalem in God’s eternal plan. This is the city where David reigned, where Solomon built the temple, where Jesus was crucified, and where the Antichrist will commit his “abomination of desolation.” If you want heaven’s viewpoint on history, keep your eyes on Jerusalem. In the last days, it will be the center of world attention.

B. The present age will come to a climax in a fearful outbreak of evil led by the Antichrist.

Our passage proves decisively that this present age is not evolving into a “kinder, gentler” world. The events of September 11 ought to have disproved that notion once and for all. But for the Bible believer, we don’t need terrorists to teach us this truth. We have always known that “evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (II Timothy 3:13 ESV). And the parable of the tares (Matthew 13:24-43) teaches us that there will be a harvest of evil and a harvest of righteousness at the end of the age. Some years ago Carl Henry remarked that in the 21st century we would see the benevolent face of humanism ripped off to reveal the ugly truth beneath its benign countenance. Some of that is happening already in 2001. We will see evil men grow even bolder in the years to come as humanity throws off all restraints and moves toward the revelation of the Antichrist.

C. God allows the Antichrist in order to show the true nature of the human heart apart from divine grace.

We should not think of the Antichrist as some kind of aberration. First John 2:18 reminds us that there are many antichrists in the world already. They have been around since the beginning of time, wreaking havoc and preparing the way for the ultimate Antichrist who is to come. When he finally rises to power, it will be the culmination of secular humanism as society attempts once and for all to live without God. We are mistaken if we believe that the Antichrist is not truly human or is somehow so inhabited by Satan that he is not like us. In truth, there is a direct line from Adam’s disobedience through Cain’s murder and the long line of evil that stretches through the Bible and across the centuries down to the terrorists of our day and those who deny moral absolutes and the pornographers and the proponents of racial hatred and those who promote killing the unborn all the way to the ultimate Man of Sin, the Antichrist. They are all playing on the same team, and it’s not God’s team. The Antichrist is nothing more than the logical end of humanism. Here is a man who truly represents 666—the best that man can do apart from God, which is to do evil continually in his heart. The only difference between any of us and the Antichrist is the working of divine grace to save us from ourselves. God says, “Look at the Antichrist. Gaze at what you have produced. This is what humanity comes to when left to itself.” It is only by grace that we are saved—not only from sin but also from the darker impulses that lurk inside each of us, that most of us suppress, but in some people bear sad and evil fruit.

The world likes to believe that “every day in every way things are getting better and better.” While it is true that the last century has seen enormous technological progress, it is also true that more people died in more wars in the 20th century than in any other century known to mankind. We haven’t really made any moral progress at all. The human heart is still desperately wicked and in need of God’s grace. We have perfected the art of killing and made it easier than ever before. The future reign of the Antichrist will show us how evil man can become when he is completely cut off from the grace of God.

What Difference Does It Make?

In light of all that I have said, what difference should it make in the way we live this week? I do not believe the Bible gives us this information about the Antichrist to tickle our fancy or to stir up our curiosity. Like everything else in the Bible, this truth is meant for our spiritual growth. How should we live in light of the coming Antichrist?

A. Be Alert!

The last days will be a time of confusion and spiritual delusion. Don’t be sucked in by the spirit of the Antichrist that is already in the world. That spirit tries to make us think that sin isn’t really sinful and that there is no such thing as right and wrong. It also seduces us into silence when we ought to be speaking out. Ponder the words of I Peter 5:8 (ESV), “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” Don’t let that “someone” be you. A great deception will come to the earth in the last days. Many will be deceived. It’s easy to say, “That would never happen to me.” Don’t be too sure. Many will be deceived who today would laugh at that suggestion.

B. Don’t be Naive!

This is a time for the people of God to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” Don’t be naive about the true nature of sin in the world. Bad things happen because evil people cause them to happen. They hijack planes and fly them into skyscrapers. They mail anthrax to public officials. They loot and kill and destroy and defraud and break the laws of God and man and sometimes they go on TV and gloat about it. If we are indeed living near the coming of Christ, then we ought to brace ourselves for further outbreaks of hideous evil. The worst is yet to come. No matter how good the world seems to be in terms of technology, the moral compass is pointing in the wrong direction.

C. Be Bold!

This is no time for compromise. In times like these, Christians ought to be bold and open about our faith. Raise the flag of Jesus high above your head and then take your stand under that flag so that those near and far know who you are and whose you are. Open your mouth and say a good word for the Lord. Speak up for the Savior. Let your voice be heard so loudly that no one can doubt whose side you are on.

D. Live Without Fear!

This is the final bit of good news. The Antichrist is coming but we should not be afraid. Will this evil ruler arise in the present generation? I do not know, and it is useless to speculate. If we know the Lord, we are joined with the One who is the ultimate victor in the battle between good and evil. As the Southern gospel song says, “I’ve read the end of the book and we win!” Indeed, we do. We win because Jesus wins. We win not because of anything we do but because we are joined by faith with the Ultimate Victor, the Lord Jesus Christ. This week a friend reminded me that one of the Negro spirituals says, “My Lord, what a morning, when the stars fall from the skies.” The slaves often sang songs that talked about the coming of the Lord because that great hope contrasted so vividly with the bleakness of their bondage. If we read or think about the Antichrist and then give in to fear, we have missed the great point that Jesus is the Victor in the end. We must live in hope because our God is a God of hope and in Christ we have great hope for the future. And that’s why the church has always done its best work in bad days and hard times. When the skies are the darkest, it is then that the glory of the gospel shines the brightest.

Antichrist will come, but he will not have the last word. When the Antichrist does his worst, Christ does his best. Where sin abounded, grace superabounded. This is our hope for the future. Be encouraged. The Antichrist will rise and fall and then Christ will return to set up his kingdom on the earth. Even the Antichrist is an instrument in God’s hand. He can do nothing without God’s permission. When his time on earth is up, he will be utterly destroyed.

Whose Side Are You On?

Let’s wrap up our study with a very personal appeal. In the end the battle between Christ and the Antichrist is being fought in every human heart. The day will come when every man, woman, boy and girl must make a choice: Christ or Antichrist. But that choice is no different than the choice we must make today. It’s time to choose sides. Will you stand with Jesus or will you side with the Antichrist? In the end, there is no other choice. Where do you stand? Are you on the side of Jesus Christ? If you don’t know how to answer that question, you are already on the wrong side. No one slides into heaven by accident. Each one of us must decide which side we are on. In the end there is no room for neutrality. It is light or darkness, God or Satan, Christ or the Antichrist.

There never has been a better day to become a Christian. Why not come to Christ now? Today is the day of salvation. If you believe that Jesus is the Son of God, then run to the cross. Lay your sins on Jesus. Believe that he died for you and that he rose again on the third day. Open your heart to him. Pledge your allegiance to the Lamb who died for you. Trust Christ as your Lord and Savior. Then no matter what the future holds, you will have nothing to fear.

Heavenly Father, we thank you for the Word of Truth given to us many centuries ago. And we thank you that before our eyes we see all the lines of history converging in the same direction, just as the Bible says. We believe that what is not yet fulfilled will come to pass in your own time and according to your good plan. Help us to see the Spirit of Antichrist that is already in the world. Strengthen our faith and make us bold for Jesus Christ. Give us a spirit of encouragement and deep joy that comes from knowing that you are in control of all things. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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