In Matthew 24 Jesus is preparing His disciples for things to come, and He tells them that certain events are “the beginning of sorrows” (Matthew 24:8, KJV), or “the beginning of birth pains.” The narrative begins with the disciples pointing out the temple buildings and Jesus remarking that it would all be torn down (Matthew 24:1–2). The disciples asked Jesus when these things would take place and what would be the sign of His coming and of the end of the age (Matthew 24:3). Jesus explains that there would be many false messiahs who would come and who would claim to be authentic (Matthew 24:5). They would be deceptive and appealing, and many would be fooled by them. There would be wars and rumors of wars (Matthew 24:6). Nations would rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom, and there would even be famines and earthquakes (Matthew 24:7). While all that would be alarming and even terrifying, Jesus encouraged them that those things would not signify the end; they were only the beginning of sorrows.
Hearing Jesus’ description of the beginning of sorrows, the disciples would have been alarmed. Jesus was describing the collapse of the temple and its systems, mass socio-political upheaval, human catastrophe and crisis, and natural disasters. But Jesus encourages them that these things are not the end, but they are the beginning of sorrows (Matthew 24:8). At first glance, this seems a strange statement, but recognizing that the Greek word for “sorrows” (odinon) is often associated with the idea of labor or birth pains, we understand Jesus to be indicating that this ongoing series of tragic events would merely be the “labor pains” leading to another event. Once these things began, the condition of the world would continue to worsen until the “childbirth” was completed.
At the beginning of sorrows, when the labor pains began, there would be persecution and martyrdom for those who wish to follow Jesus (Matthew 24:9); many will stumble over this intense persecution and stop following Jesus—even betraying and hating each other out of fear (Matthew 24:10). Many false prophets will rise up and deceive many people (Matthew 24:11). Lawlessness and lovelessness will increase (Matthew 24:12). After all that, Jesus says, then the end of the age will come (Matthew 24:13).
After the events that are the beginning of sorrows and after the worsening of the labor pains, there would be a great tribulation—a time of great catastrophe and anguish (Matthew 24:21), and after that terrible time, the sign of the Lord’s coming will appear. Christ will return (Matthew 24:29–30), and all those in heaven with Him will return, as well (Matthew 24:31). This scene is similar to what is described in Revelation 19—the return of Christ with the multitude of saints (Revelation 19:11–14).
With the foretelling of these events, including the “beginning of sorrows,” Jesus is preparing His disciples for the difficulties they will face in their lifetimes. Still, He reminds them that things will get even worse than what they themselves will face. But it will all culminate in the messianic kingdom, just as the prophets had foretold (see Daniel 7:13–14). Because they now had the end of the story, the disciples could walk both with hope and with urgency, knowing the importance of making the most of the opportunity. Peter later would challenge his readers to consider that, since things will end this way, they should be people of “holy and godly lives” (2 Peter 3:11).