Wars and Rumors of War

SYNOPSIS - Jesus warned his disciples not to heed claims by deceivers who pointed to manmade and natural catastrophes as “signs” of the approaching end - Matthew 24:4-8.

War - Photo by Duncan Kidd on Unsplash
By Duncan Kidd on Unsplash
Jesus began his Olivet Discourse with a sharp warning - Beware of deceivers who claim his authority and spread rumors about wars, earthquakes, and other calamities. Such men will succeed in “deceiving many.” Contrary to their claims, the "end is not yet."

This warning is repeated several times in his 'Olivet Discourse' - “Many false prophets will arise and deceive many” - False messiahs and false prophets will show "signs and wonders to deceive even the very elect” (Matthew 24:11, 24:24-25).
  • (Matthew 24:4-8) – “Beware that no man deceive you. For many shall come upon my name, saying, I am the Christ; and shall deceive many. And you shall hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not troubled: for 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 earthquakes in different places. But all these things are a beginning of birth pains” (Mark 13:5-8Luke 21:8-11).
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 end’s proximity. The stress in his words falls on what the disciples will “hear” about such events, presumably from the deceivers. His point was not that such disasters would not occur, but they are NOT signs of the end -  Such events are not keys with which one can decode prophetic timetables and forecast specific events.
Tragically, these very words of Jesus have been used time and again to provide lists of prophetic “signs of the times,” the very things Jesus said do not signal the end.
Initially, the Discourse was addressed to his twelve disciples. They were part of the first “Christian generation.” But they also represent a larger group - All followers of Jesus throughout the present age. Projecting this warning exclusively onto a “generation” that lies centuries in the future ignores the literary context and historical setting.

Deceivers

The warning about deceivers is placed first in the Discourse because it is central to it. 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 when the expectations inevitably fail.

For many will come upon the basis of my name.”  The Greek conjunction gar or “for” introduces the explanation. Many disciples will be deceived because of the claims by false prophets made “on the basis of (epi)” the name of Jesus - That is, on his authority. The targeted victims of these deceptions are not men in general, but disciples of Jesus in particular.

Natural and Man-made Disasters

Jesus continued - “Moreover (de), you will hear of wars and reports of wars.”  The conjunction de indicates further development of a subject. The Greek for “rumors” or “reports” signifies something that is heard.  The stress is on the content of what the disciples will hear from the deceivers. “Reports of wars” reiterates the point – this is what they would hear - Reports about wars, famines, and earthquakes occurring in different places.

The issue was not whether wars occur or the accuracy of said reports, but their source. False prophets and other deceivers would spread rumors about wars and other catastrophes in order to raise prophetic expectations. And a day is coming when the "Man of Lawlessness" will appear in conjunction with a final "apostasy" (2 Thessalonians 2:1-4).

Jesus affirmed that human and natural catastrophes do and will occur - Earthquakes, wars, political upheavals, famines, plagues, “terrors and great signs from heaven,” and the like; however, his disciples must “not be alarmedthe end is not yet.”

Tornado Alley - Photo by Nikolas Noonan on Unsplash
Photo by Nikolas Noonan on Unsplash

Chaos and violence characterize all eras of human history and cannot be used to calculate the time 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, proof that the present age cannot continue forever. They mark a “beginning”, not an end. Jesus acknowledges that such things do occur but he does not refer to them as “signs.”

The Beginning of the End

The words, “These things must come to pass,” allude to Daniel 2:26-28 where a dream was revealed to the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar. The astrologers of Babylon had failed to disclose and interpret his dream - Only Daniel succeeded in doing so, and only by the intervention of Yahweh. The prophet prefaced his remarks to the king - “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).

The verbal allusion links Christ’s reference about the “beginning of labor pains” to the “latter days” from the passage in Daniel. In the New Testament, the Death and Resurrection of Jesus marked the start of the “last days,” the time of fulfillment (Acts 2:16-21Hebrews 1:1-3).

Birth Pains

The image of “birth-pains” is common in Scripture for the suddenness and inevitability of destruction, not for the frequency or intensity of an event (Isaiah 26:17, 66:8, Jeremiah 6:24, 13:21, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-3).

Nowhere did Jesus predict any increases in frequency or intensity of any of the listed calamities, whether in his day, throughout the long history ahead, or during history’s so-called “last generation.”

Attempts to calculate future chronologies by wars, earthquakes, and the like are problematic - Such catastrophes occur with regularity. What distinguishes one war or earthquake from another one, at least in prophetic terms? Jesus provided no insight on such matters. Instead, he exhorted his disciples NOT to be alarmed when disasters occur, as they inevitably will.

The Season is Near

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

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” (Matthew 24:36Mark 13:32-33). Disciples must “watch and pray, for you know not when the season (kairos) is.”

Jesus was alluding to the passage from Daniel 12:4 where the prophet was told, “Seal up the words and the book, even until the season (kairos) of the end” (Septuagint). Deceivers who claim to know the timing of the end presume to know what Jesus stated God alone knows. Such a claim marks someone out as a deceiver. “Do not follow him!

A Warning to Avoid Deceivers

The point made by Jesus in this first paragraph of His 'Olivet Discourse' was not to provide the “signs of the times” whereby one can ascertain the proximity of the end but, instead, to warn his disciples NOT to heed claims of deceivers who point to manmade and natural catastrophes as “signs” of the end.

An irony is that the very deceivers who spread rumors about such “signs” are themselves indisputable evidence that the “last days” are already underway, however long that period might endure, for Jesus warned repeatedly of coming deceivers and false prophets who would disseminate false information about his "coming."

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