The Beginning of Sorrows: Matthew 24:4–8
And Jesus answered and said unto them, Take heed that no man deceive you. For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many. And ye shall hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that ye be not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in various places. All these are the beginning of sorrows (Mt. 24:4–8).
Jesus had gathered His disciples around Him. He had recently delivered a scathing sermon about the hypocrisy of some of the religious leaders of Israel. The rejection of Israel’s Messiah by these leaders and the nation would bring judgment. Jesus said He would leave and not return until they exclaimed, “Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord” (Mt. 23:39). His remarks about the coming destruction of the Temple must have amazed His followers. Every stone would be thrown down in the destruction of this magnificent edifice.
In response to Jesus’ statement, His disciples asked two questions: “Tell us, when shall these things be? And what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the age?” (Mt. 24:3). Beginning at Matthew 24:4, Jesus answered the disciples’ second question in great detail. (The answer to their first question is recorded in Luke 21:12–24.)
Timing of the Events
A proper understanding of the historical time period Jesus had in mind is imperative to a study of Matthew 24. One indicator of the period Jesus described is found in verse 8 in the phrase, “the beginning of sorrows.” The concept referred to is the-beginning of birth pains for woman—the time when labor begins unexpectedly with painful contractions that increase in frequency and severity as the birth of the child grows closer. Jesus used the phrase “the beginning of sorrows” (birth pains) in the same way that many of the prophets of Israel had used it in the past and later writers of the New Testament would use it in the future.
The image of birth pains is used in the Old Testament in conjunction with end-time events. Such passages as Isaiah 13:8; 26:17; Jeremiah 30:6; and Micah 4:9 speak of birth pains in the context of end-time events. These events will occur at a time described by such terms as “the day of the Lᴏʀᴅ” (e.g., Joel 2:1), Daniel’s 70th week (Dan. 9), the Tribulation (e.g., Mt. 24:21), and “the time of Jacob’s trouble” (Jer. 30:7).
Paul used the same terminology in 1 Thessalonians 5:3 when he said that at a time of peace and safety, sudden destruction would come “as travail upon a woman with child.” Israel’s birth pains will occur shortly after the nation signs a peace accord with her enemies, orchestrated by the Antichrist (Dan. 9:27). This singular event—the signing of the peace treaty—will signal the start of the Tribulation period. The people of the world will think that all is well and peaceful; then suddenly judgment will come from the hand of an angry God.
Interestingly, it has been a Jewish belief for many centuries that the coming of the Messiah will be preceded by “birth pains.” Raphael Patai, a Jewish scholar, in his book Messiah Texts (pp. 95–96), develops in some detail the Jewish belief of “pangs of Messianic times.” Patai states that the idea that the coming of the Messiah will be preceded by greatly increased suffering is entrenched in Jewish thought. These birth “pangs,” according to Patai, will last seven years, and then the Messiah will come.
Matthew 24:4 to 7 describes the start of the seven-year Tribulation period, as indicated by the use, in verse 8, of the phrase, “All these [the events mentioned in verses 4 to 7] are the beginning of sorrows.” The judgments of the Tribulation period will come with increasing rapidity and harshness as the period progresses, in the same way that birth pains come increasingly faster and are more painful just prior to the birth.
Revelation chapters 6 to 19 show this reality unfolding as the seal, trumpet, and bowl judgments are unleashed, in all their fury, upon the world. This time period will culminate in the spiritual birth of the nation of Israel, as the individuals in the nation receive Jesus as their Messiah and King (Isa. 66:8–9; Zech. 12:10; Rom. 11:26).
The phrase “the beginning of sorrows” is equivalent to the beginning of the Tribulation period, that last seven-year period of Daniel’s prophecy recorded in Daniel 9:24 to 27. This places the events of Matthew 24 in the Tribulation period. The church, having been raptured prior to this period, is not in view in this portion of Scripture.
Jesus warned the people in the Tribulation period to be discerning. Many will claim to be the Messiah. History is replete with individuals who have made this claim. There is one basic reason why people have followed and will follow false Messiahs: biblical ignorance.
Although many false Messiahs have appeared in the last 2,000 years (Simon Bar Kokhba, Shabbetai Zvi, and today’s Menachem Mendel Schneerson, to name just a few), Scripture indicates that at the beginning of the Tribulation period many more will claim to be the Messiah. Satanic deception will be rampant.
The ultimate tool in the hands of Satan during the Tribulation period will be the Antichrist. A political leader from the revived Roman Empire, he will guarantee safety for the nation of Israel in the aforementioned treaty that will launch the Tribulation.
Biblical ignorance has caused many Jewish people to follow false Messiahs and reject Jesus, their true Messiah. Sadly, many who profess the name of Jesus are also deluded by false and heretical teachings. One of the recurring themes in the epistles is that false prophets will infiltrate the church and lead many astray. The last days before the Tribulation period will be characterized by false teachings (2 Tim. 3:1–8). Signs and wonders, prosperity gospels, and myriad other new teachings are leading millions astray. The antidote for these claims is the same as that for recognizing the true Messiah: People must be discerning. They must study and understand the Bible well enough to spot counterfeits when they show up. There is no substitute for biblical literacy.
The destruction brought about by wars has been chronicled throughout the history of mankind. The 20th century has given us some of the most potent and destructive weapons ever produced. Atomic and nuclear devices can destroy millions of people and miles of land in one explosion.
The Tribulation period will begin with the expectation of peace and safety on a universal basis such as has never been realized in the history of nations. This peace, however, will be short-lived. The Tribulation period will be characterized by “wars and rumors of wars … nation … against nation, and kingdom against kingdom” (Mt. 24:6–7).
The peace of the Tribulation period will turn into just the opposite. Passages such as Daniel 7 and 11:40 to 45 describe the many wars that will take place during the Tribulation. Destruction will be rampant. As Jesus said, “these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet” (Mt. 24:6). Wars among nations will be just part of “the beginning of sorrows.” These wars will occur during the first half of the Tribulation, but the worst is still to come.
In the first half of the Tribulation period mankind will experience numerous types of disasters. Famines, pestilences, and earthquakes will be the order of the day. These natural disasters will be part of the judgment of a holy and wrathful God.
The Day of the Lord will be visited on the inhabitants of the earth. In the first part of the Tribulation alone, based on today’s world population figures, as many as 1.5 billion people will die from the combined wars, famines, pestilences, and earthquakes. It is not difficult to imagine this happening, given the various chemical bombs and weapons that nations have developed, “but the end is not yet.”
The Prophet Amos described this time: “As if a man did flee from a lion, and a bear met him; or went into the house, and leaned his hand on the wall, and a serpent bit him” (Amos 5:19). Inescapable, unparalleled disasters will escalate in intensity throughout the seven-year Tribulation period. As destructive and intense as those disasters will be, they are still only “the beginning of sorrows.”
The Seal Judgments
The seal judgments of Revelation 6 will signal the beginning of the Tribulation period. A comparison of the first four seal judgments of Revelation 6 and the judgments depicted in Matthew 24:4 to 7 shows a continuity between the two passages.
The first seal judgment (Rev. 6:1–2) describes a rider on a white horse coming to conquer. This is a depiction of the Antichrist—the first judgment unleashed on the unbelieving world during the Tribulation period by Jesus, the Lamb of God. The Antichrist will come on a white horse, promising peace, but his ultimate goal will be to conquer. Matthew 24:4 to 5 gives the same type of warning about deception at the beginning of the Tribulation period.
The second seal judgment (Rev. 6:3–4) speaks of a red horse which symbolizes war, because the one sitting on this horse will “take peace from the earth, and … they [people] should kill one another.” Matthew 24:6 to 7 describes the same situation: “ye shall hear of wars and rumors of wars … For nation shall rise against nation.”
The third seal judgment (Rev. 6:5–6) tells of a black horse whose rider will bring famine to the earth. The “denarius” mentioned in verse 6 represents a day’s wage. In other words, a man will earn just enough money to provide food for himself. His wages will not be sufficient to feed his entire family. Matthew 24:7 relates the same thing. Famine will be a characteristic of the first part of the Tribulation period.
The fourth seal judgment (Rev. 6:7–8) tells of a rider on a pale horse who will bring death and pestilence. Matthew 24:7 tells of the pestilences and famines that will come at “the beginning of sorrows.”
A.C. Gabelein, in his commentary The Gospel of Matthew, sums up these parallel passages as follows:
If this is the correct interpretation, if Matthew 24:4–14 refers to the beginning of the coming end of the age and if Revelation 6 refers to the same beginning of the end and that which follows the sixth chapter leads us on into the great Tribulation, then there must be a perfect harmony between that part of the Olivet Discourse contained in Matthew 24 and the part of Revelation beginning with the sixth chapter. And such is indeed the case.
Yes, such is indeed the case. The parallels are too close to be coincidental. Revelation 6 describes the start of the Tribulation, and Matthew 24:4 and following describes the same time period.
Beginning of the End
Matthew 24:4 to 8 is the beginning of the Olivet Discourse. It relates the beginning of the end of man’s rule on earth and the start of Daniel’s 70th week, the Tribulation period.
Those living on the earth during that time will experience the wrath of the Lamb. As Revelation 6:17 states, “the great day of his wrath is come.” It will begin with the first seal judgment and continue through the last bowl judgment.
One of the great promises of Scripture is that believers—those who have accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior—are “not appointed … to wrath but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Th. 5:9): The church is nowhere in sight in Matthew 24 or Revelation 6 to 19 because believers will be taken off the earth before the Tribulation starts. That event is referred to as the Rapture (see 1 Th. 4:13–18) and will take place before the events of the Olivet Discourse transpire. Believers will be spared from the time of God’s wrath.
If you have never accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior, I implore you to do so now. He died for your sins and rose from the grave so that your sins can be forgiven and you can live forever with Him. If you are a believer in Jesus, He will come for you before the awful events of the Tribulation begin; thus, you will be spared from that time of God’s wrath.
Many people believe that we are close to the outbreak of the Tribulation period. If they are correct, it is imperative that you not delay in accepting Jesus. But even if His Second Coming does not occur for many more years, no individual has been given a promise of what tomorrow holds. Don’t put off what you must do to have your sins forgiven. Accept Jesus as your Messiah and Savior today.