Heavy clouds hang over many Muslim-majority countries around the world. The devastating war in Syria has seen over 60,000 lives lost at the time of writing and, by the time you are reading this, there may well be 4 million people displaced internally and over 1 million externally.
The Syrian economy has been devastated and the beleaguered Christian community in Syria faces the certain prospect of oppression, if not destruction. The process of eliminating the church in Iraq continues.
A dreadful tyranny hangs over the Christian community of Egypt. Pakistan’s Christians exist in a failed state. In Africa, particularly Nigeria, the frequent murder of Christians, especially when they are gathered for worship, seems unstoppable.
Add to this the natural disasters and widespread economic decline of our day, and we have a situation very much as the Lord Jesus predicted to his disciples: wars, rumours of wars, nations in conflict, famines and earthquakes (Matthew 24:6-7).
In the next verse our Lord explains that events such as these are part of the birth pangs of the new age. He counsels his disciples that they must happen according to the divine purposes of God, and so believers can and should remain calm. But he interprets them as ‘the beginning of the suffering [literally, birth-pangs]’, which is a technical term for the distress that is coming upon the world before the end of the age.
As part of this distress, the people of God will be caught in horrific situations of persecution. Because of loyalty to Jesus’s Name, they will suffer affliction, hatred and death. Worse still, some will betray their fellow-believers; some will deny their faith; many will be deceived by false prophets; and ‘the love of most will grow cold’ (Matthew 24:9-12).
How much of this are we already seeing? In the face of such calamitous situations, we may be tempted to react with apathy or even despair, seeing no possible solution to the evil and wickedness of our world.
But the birth pangs tell us that God is going to intervene directly in history. These birth pangs will usher in the Day of the Lord when this present age, with all its sufferings, will be transformed into the age to come.
As Daniel said to King Nebuchadnezzar, ‘There is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries’ (Daniel 2:28), and the Lord has graciously revealed to us his plan so that we should not be alarmed.
God has not abandoned the world. It is still the scene in which God’s purposes will be fulfilled. The horror and suffering of Good Friday gave way to the glorious resurrection victory of Easter Sunday. The gospel will be preached across the globe (Matthew 24:14).
We should not be discouraged. ‘When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near’ (Luke 21:28).
Judgement and a new creation are certain. We must remain faithful to Christ, because those who stand firm to the end will be saved (Matthew 24:13).
Dr Patrick Sookhdeo
International Director of Barnabas Fund