SYNOPSIS – Jesus warned us not to heed claims by deceivers who pointed to manmade and natural catastrophes as “signs” of a rapidly approaching end – Matthew 24:4-8.
Jesus began his ‘Olivet Discourse’ with a sharp warning – Beware of deceivers – They claim his authority and, upon it, spread rumors about wars, earthquakes, and other calamities. Such men will “deceive many.” But contrary to their claims, the “end is not yet.” This warning is repeated several times in the 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).
The Lord 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 its proximity. The stress falls on what his disciples would “hear” about these events, presumably from the deceivers.
(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” – (Parallel passages – Mark 13:5-8, Luke 21:8-11).
The point is not that such disasters will not occur but, instead, that they are not “signs” by which anyone can ascertain the time of the “end” – They are not keys for decoding prophetic timetables or predicting future prophetic events.
Tragically and ironically, the types of calamities Jesus listed for us of things that do not portend the nearness of the “end” have been used time and again by deceivers within the church as “signs” of its soon arrival – 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 “last generation” that lies centuries in the future ignores both the literary and historical contexts of the passage.
DECEIVERS – The warning about deceivers is placed first because it is pivotal to the overall ‘Discourse.’ “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 those 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. Their targeted victims are not men and women in general, but disciples of Jesus in particular.
DISASTERS AND WAR – Jesus continued – “Moreover (de), you will hear of wars and reports of wars.” The conjunction de signifies the further development of a subject. The Greek for “rumors” points to 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 will hear – “Reports” about wars, famines, and earthquakes occurring in different places.
The issue was not whether wars will occur, or the accuracy of such reports, but their source. “False prophets” and other deceivers spread rumors about wars and other catastrophes to raise prophetic expectations – (Compare – 2 Thessalonians 2:1-4).
Jesus affirmed that catastrophes would occur – Earthquakes, wars, political upheavals, famines, plagues, “terrors and great signs from heaven,” and the like, but his disciples must “not be alarmed – The end is not yet.”
Chaos and violence have characterized all eras of human history and cannot be used to calculate the time of the “end.” 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 the “end.” Jesus acknowledged such things occur, but he did not classify 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 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 from Daniel. In the New Testament, the Death and Resurrection of Jesus marked the start of the “last days,” the time of fulfillment – (Acts 2:16-21; Hebrews 1:1-3).
BIRTH PAINS – The image of “birth-pains” is common in Scripture for the suddenness and the 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 24:36, Mark 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!”
AVOID DECEIVERS – The purpose of Jesus was not to provide the “signs of the times” whereby one can ascertain the proximity of the end, but to warn his disciples NOT to heed claims by deceivers who point to manmade and natural catastrophes as “signs” and harbingers of the rapidly approaching end.