Jesus on End-time Tumults and Signs

SynopsisThe Olivet Discourse opens with warnings about coming deceivers who will deceive many with false expectations about the end of the age.

Photo by Josep Castells on Unsplash
Photo by Josep Castells on Unsplash
Jesus began his final discourse by warning of coming deceivers who claim his authority and spread rumors about various calamities in order to “deceive many.” This warning is repeated at pivotal points in the Olivet Discourse - “Many false prophets will arise and deceive many,” false messiahs and prophets will show signs and wonders in order to “deceive even the very elect” of God (Matthew 24:4-14, Mark 13:5-8, Luke 21:8-11).

No prediction receives more stress in the Olivet Discourse than the several warnings about deceivers that are intent on misleading the followers of Jesus.

Jesus provided a list of calamitous events that are NOT signs of the end, some of the very “signs” to which deceivers would point as evidence of the proximity of the end. The stress in his words is on what the disciples “hear,” presumably from said deceivers.

The point is not that disasters do not occur but that they do not constitute signs of the end; such events are not keys with which one may decode prophetic chronologies or calculate when the Son of Man will appear. Tragically, these words of Jesus have been used by preachers and prognosticators as prophetic “signs of the times” to prove the end is just around the corner; the very things Jesus said do not signal the end are cited as signs of its imminence.

In his discourse, Jesus was responding to the questions of his disciples and employed the Greek plural pronoun for “you” when doing so (“ye” in the King James Version). He describes things they will “hear” in the coming years. His words were addressed to his followers, including ones that lived in the first “Christian generation.”

In this context, the disciples represent a larger group; however, they remain members of it. Projecting this warning exclusively onto a “generation” many centuries in the future ignores the literary setting.

The warning about deceivers is placed at the start of the discourse because of its centrality and importance to the entire thing. Deceivers and false prophets have plagued the church since its inception. There is a long history of heightened end-time expectations followed by disappointment and apostasy due to preachers that have disseminated false information about the future, often pointing to the very sorts of events Jesus declared are NOT the “end.”

For many will come on the basis of my name.” The Greek conjunction gar or “for” introduces this explanation. Many will be deceived because false prophets will make claims on (epi) Christ’s name. In other words, they will claim his authority. The target of their deceptions is not the world in general, but believers in particular.

Jesus continued: “Moreover (de), you will hear of wars and reports of wars.” The conjunction de indicates further development of a subject. The Greek word for “rumors” or “reports” signifies something that is heard. The stress is on the content of what disciples hear from the deceivers. “Reports of wars” reiterates the point.

The issue is not whether wars will occur or the accuracy of said reports but, instead, their source, and, in this context, that can only be the deceiver. False prophets and other deceivers will spread rumors of wars to raise prophetic expectations (see2 Thessalonians 2:1-4).

Jesus affirmed that human and natural catastrophes will occur; earthquakes, wars, political upheavals, famines, plagues, “terrors and great signs from heaven”; however, disciples must “not be alarmed.” Chaos and violence have characterized all eras of human history and, thus, cannot be used to calculate the timing of the end (“the end is not yet”). At most, they are a “beginning of birth-pangs,” harbingers of the eventual consummation of this age but nothing more of prophetic significance. Such catastrophes constitute evidence that the present age cannot continue forever. Jesus acknowledged such things would continue to occur, but he never called them “signs.”

The words, “These things must come to pass,” allude to Daniel 2:26-28 where a dream was revealed to Nebuchadnezzar by Daniel. The soothsayers and astrologers of Babylon failed to disclose and interpret the king’s dream; only Daniel did so and only by the intervention of Yahweh. He prefaced his remarks to Nebuchadnezzar, “there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries; he has shown the king what things must come to pass in the latter days” (Septuagint version).

This scriptural allusion links the reference to the “beginning of labor pains” to the “latter days” in the clause from Daniel. In the New Testament, the death and resurrection of Jesus marked the beginning of the “last days,” the time of fulfillment of many long-awaited promises. Two such expectations were the rise of deceivers and the apostasy they would cause (Acts 2:16-21, Thessalonians 2:1-4, 1 Timothy 4:1, 2 Timothy 3:1).

The image of “birth-pains” is a common one in scripture for the suddenness and inevitability of destruction upon the unprepared. It is not used to signify the frequency or intensity of an event (Isaiah 26:17, 66:8, Jeremiah 6:24, 13:21, Hosea 13:13, Micah 4:9, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-3).
Nowhere did Jesus predict any increase in the frequency or intensity of any of the calamities in his list, whether in his day, throughout the long history ahead, or during the “last generation” to live before his return. 

Attempts to calculate future dates by wars, earthquakes, and the like are problematic; such catastrophes occur with regularity. What distinguishes one war or earthquake from another in its prophetic importance? Jesus provides no insight on such matters; instead, he exhorts disciples NOT to be alarmed when disasters inevitably occur.

The version of the Discourse in the gospel of Luke adds an interesting element: “many will come in my name, saying, I am he, and, The season is at hand.” This confirms that deceivers point to wars and calamities as evidence that the end or “season” (kairos) is imminent (Luke 21:8-9).

What “season” did Jesus mean? Several paragraphs later, he warned that no one “knows of that day and hour” when the Son of Man will arrive, except “the Father ALONE.” Disciples must “watch and pray, for you know not when the season (kairos) is” (Matthew 24:36, Mark 13:32-33).

Jesus also alluded to a clause from Daniel 12:4; the prophet was commanded, “seal up the words and the book, even until the season (kairos) of the end” (Septuagint version). Deceivers who would claim to know the timing of the end presumed to know what Christ declared God alone knows. Such claims mark out men and women who are deceivers.

The point is not to provide “signs of the times” by which one can ascertain the end’s proximity, but to warn disciples not to heed claims by deceivers that point to manmade and natural catastrophes as “signs” of an imminent end. Ironically, the very deceivers who spread rumors about such “signs” are themselves indisputable evidence that the “last days” are underway, however long that period might endure.

The next paragraph expands the warning about deceivers. Disciples also will experience betrayal and tribulation, even to the point of martyrdom. The gospel of Mark adds that believers are to be “delivered up to councils and flogged in synagogues.” “Councils” translates synedrion, the term for “Sanhedrin.” The plural form indicates local Jewish councils that had the authority to punish Jews who deviated from doctrinal norms and practices. This points to the persecution of believers within Jewish settings (Matthew 24:9, Mark 13:9)

The New Testament confirms that early Christians were hauled before Jewish councils and flogged by synagogue rulers. Resistance to the Christian message was a common reaction among Jewish religious leaders (Acts 4:1-21, 5:17-40, 6:11-15, 22:19, 23:1-2, 2 Corinthians 11:23-27).

Disciples will also be hated by all nations “for my name’s sake,” with some hauled before pagan authorities, “governors and kings,” as the book of Acts further attests. Thus, Jesus predicted persecution by both Jewish and secular authorities (Acts 16:20-24, 24:1, 25:1-26:32).

To give testimony before “governors and kings” is a part of the church’s mission to proclaim the gospel to all nations. This warning points to a broader Gentile context for the early church as it began to expand beyond Jewish populations. The mission to the nations must be completed before the end arrives (Matthew 28:18-20, Mark 13:10).

Matthew’s version is more explicit; “This gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole habitable earth for a testimony to all nations; then shall the end come.” If Jesus gave a definitive “sign” of the end, the completion of the church’s mission is it (Matthew 24:14, Mark 13:10).

This” translates a Greek emphatic pronoun, houtos; “this” gospel and no other. That is, the same message preached by Jesus about the “the kingdom of God.” “Nations” represents the Greek term ethnos, the same noun rendered “gentile” often in English translations of the New Testament. The gospel must be proclaimed throughout all nations before the “end” can arrive.

The prediction that the gospel mission must be completed first, is an answer, at least in part, to the disciples’ question - “What will be the sign of the end of the age,” although it is difficult to calculate when this “sign” has reached its conclusion.

Persecution will cause many disciples to stumble and turn on one another, outing fellow believers to persecuting authorities. Followers of Jesus must not despair; such events are opportunities to testify to governors and kings. Moreover, God’s Spirit will enable effective testimony before the courts of this age (Matthew 24:10, Mark 13:12, Luke 12:11-12, 21:12-16).

Jesus next repeated his warning about deceivers. During periods of trouble, “Many false prophets shall arise and deceive many (poll┼Źn).” The Greek sentence connects deception to “lawlessness” (“because of lawlessness, the love of the many will grow cold”). In addition, in the Greek clause “many” has by a definite article or “the”; it is the same group, “the many,” that will be deceived by the false prophets. The followers of Christ are in view, not the larger world that is hostile to God. “Lawlessness” may characterize the fallen world, but the concern of the Discourse is with lawlessness among disciples, lawlessness caused by the deceivers active among them (Matthew 24:11-12, Mark 13:9-13).

What counts is faithful endurance in gospel witness and through tribulations. The activity of deceivers is part of the “tribulations” disciples must endure, but only “he who endures throughout shall be saved.” Or, as Luke puts it, “in your patience you will win your souls” (Luke 21:12-19).

Persecution and tribulation are not aberrations but integral to the way of discipleship.  Suffering for his name is not something to avoid at all costs, and tribulation is the fertile ground in which the gospel flourishes. Believers should not be “troubled” by hatred and persecution; contrary to expectations, persecution creates gospel opportunity.

Jesus portrayed a people persecuted by Jewish and secular authorities, by both religious and political interests. Disciples constitute a -people distinct from both Jews and Gentiles, and both groups will remain hostile to him and his followers until the day of his return.

Jesus confirmed that the one gospel message is intended for both Jews and Gentiles; to the “whole habitable earth.” The “kingdom of God” is not another gospel intended only for Israel. It is a message of hope for all men and women regardless of ethnicity, a universal message in the truest sense of the term.

The greatest danger posed to the Church is not from unbelievers or persecuting authorities but from deceivers working within it. They cause disciples to turn on one another, hearts to grow cold, and “lawlessness” to run amok. In this context, “lawlessness” refers to an internal battle in the church, not to conditions in the outside world.

Deceivers are mixed in among the “wheat” until the end of the age. Only then will the “Son of Man send his angels to gather out of his kingdom all the causes of stumbling, and the workers of lawlessness to cast them into the furnace of fire” (Matthew 13:36-43).

It is not an event in the Middle East, the latest war in Europe, or another earthquake in California that determines when Jesus will arrive in glory; instead, the completion of the gospel mission is the key event that determines the time of the end.

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