29 January 2019

Olivet Discourse (Part 2) – Deceivers & Tumults

Jesus Teaches
Jesus began his Olivet Discourse by warning of deceivers who claim his authority and spread rumors about wars and other calamities in order to “deceive many” (Matthew 24:4-8; Mark 13:5-8; Luke 21:8-11).
      This warning is repeated in the Discourse at pivotal points. “Many false prophets will arise and deceive many” (Matthew 24:11); false messiahs and false prophets will show signs and wonders “to deceive even the very elect” (24:24-25).
      He provides a list of calamitous events that are NOT signs of the end, some of the very “signs” to which deceivers point as evidence of the end’s proximity. The stress falls on the disciples “hearing” of such signs, presumably from said deceivers.

      The point is not that disasters will not occur but that they are not signs of the end; they are not keys to decode the future or calculate prophetic timetables.
      Tragically, Christ’s words too often are used by preachers to provide lists of prophetic “signs of the times.” The very things Jesus said do not signal the end are cited as signs of its imminence.
      In this Discourse Jesus responds to his disciples and employs the Greek plural pronoun for “you” in doing so (“ye” in the King James Version). He describes things they will “hear” in the coming years; the Discourse is addressed first and foremost to followers of Jesus that lived in the first “Christian generation.”

In this context the disciples do represent a larger group; however, they remain constituent parts of it. Projecting this warning exclusively onto a “generation” centuries into the future ignores the literary setting.
      Christ’s warning about deceivers is placed because of its centrality to the Discourse. Deceivers and false prophets have plagued the church since its inception; there is a long history of heightened end-time expectations followed by disappointments and apostasy, almost always due to preachers disseminating false information about the future.
      “For many will come on the basis of my name.” The Greek conjunction gar or “for” introduces this explanation. Many are deceived because false prophets make claims on the basis of (epi) Christ’s name. In other words, they claim his authority. The target of deceivers is not the world in general but believers in particular.
     Jesus continues: “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, again presumably from the deceivers. “Reports of wars” reiterates this point – this is what you will hear, reports about wars occurring in diverse places.
     The issue is not whether wars occur or even the accuracy of said reports, but instead the source of the reports. In this context, the only possibility is the deceivers Jesus is warning disciples not to heed. False prophets and other deceivers will spread rumors of wars to raise prophetic expectations (cp. 2 Thessalonians 2:1-4).
     Jesus affirms that human and natural catastrophes do and will occur; earthquakes, wars, political upheavals, famines, plagues, “terrors and great signs from heaven,” but 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; proof that the present evil age cannot continue forever.
      But at most they mark a “beginning”, not an end. Jesus acknowledges such things occur, but nowhere does he refer to them as “signs.”
      Christ’s 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 all 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 allusion links Christ’s reference to the “beginning of labor pains” to the “latter days” in the passage from Daniel. In the New Testament the death and resurrection of Jesus marked the beginning of the “last days,” the time of fulfillment of long-awaited promises (cp. Acts 2:16-21; Hebrews 1:1-3).
     Two traditional latter-day expectations were the rise of deceivers and the resulting apostasy (2 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, and not for the frequency or intensity of an event (cp. Isaiah 26:17; 66:8; Jeremiah 6:24; 13:21; Hosea 13:13; Micah 4:9; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-3).
      Nowhere does Jesus predict any increase in frequency or intensity of any of the calamities he lists, whether in his day, throughout the long history ahead, or during history’s “last generation.”
      Attempts to calculate future chronologies by wars, earthquakes and the like are problematic since such catastrophes occur with regularity. What distinguishes one war or earthquake from another, at least in prophetic importance? Jesus provides no insight on such matters. Instead, he exhorts disciples NOT to be alarmed when disasters occur, as they inevitably will.
      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 point to wars and calamities as evidence that the end or “season” (kairos) is imminent.
      What “season” does Jesus mean? Several paragraphs later he warns 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 is also alluding to Daniel 12:4 where Daniel was told: “to 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 or its nearness presume to know what Jesus stated only God alone knows. Such a claim marks someone out to be a deceiver. “Do not follow him!”
      Christ’s point in this first paragraph 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 harbingers of the end.
      Disciples must not be alarmed by the claims of deceivers. Wars and natural disasters will occur but at best evidence the inevitable end of the age. They characterize the entire period of human history under the dominion of sin and Satan.
      And one of the ironies is that the very deceivers who point spread rumors about such “signs” are themselves indisputable evidence that the “last days” are already underway, however long that period might endure.
      The second paragraph expands on Christ’s warning about deceivers. Disciples must also experience betrayal and tribulation, even to the point of martyrdom (Matthew 24:9).
      Mark’s account adds to this that believers are to be “delivered up to councils and flogged in synagogues” (Mark 13:9). “Councils” translates synedrion, the term for “Sanhedrin.” The plural form indicates local Jewish councils with the authority to punish Jews who deviated from doctrinal norms or practices. This points to the persecution of believers within Jewish settings.
      The New Testament elsewhere confirms that early Christians were hauled before Jewish councils and flogged by synagogue rulers (Acts 4:1-21; 5:17-40; 6:11-15; 22:19; 23:1-2; 2 Corinthians 11:23-27). Resistance to the Christian message was a common reaction among Jewish religious leaders.
      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 again attests (Acts 16:20-24; 24:1; 25:1-26:32). Jesus thus predicted persecution by both Jewish and secular authorities.
      To give testimony before “governors and kings” is or should be an integral part of the gospel proclamation. This implies a much broader Gentile context for the early church as it expanded beyond Jewish populations to fulfill Christ’s command to “preach the gospel to all the nations,” a task that 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” (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 ethnos, the same noun often rendered “gentile” in English translations of the New Testament.
      The gospel must be proclaimed throughout all Gentile nations before the “end” can arrive. One implication of this statement is that the message of God’s kingdom is NOT exclusively for the Jewish nation; it is applicable to all.
      The prediction that the gospel mission must be completed before the end answers in part the disciples’ question, “what will be the sign of the end of the age” (Matthew 24:3), though it is quite difficult to calculate or even hope to know when this “sign” has reached its zenith.
      Persecution causes many disciples to stumble and to turn on one another, outing fellow believers to persecuting authorities (Matthew 24:10; Mark 13:12). But followers of Jesus must not despair; such events are opportunities to testify to governors, proconsuls and even kings. Moreover, God’s Spirit enables effective testimony before the courts of this age (Luke 12:11-12; 21:12-16).
      Jesus now repeats his warning about deceivers, a key theme of the Discourse. In the midst of troubles “many false prophets shall arise and deceive many (pollōn)” (Matthew 24:11-12; Mark 13:9-13). The Greek sentence connects deception to “lawlessness”; “and because of lawlessness being brought to the full, the love of the many (pollōn) will grow cold” Matthew 24:11-12). In the second case “many” has by the definite article; it is the same group, “the many,” deceived by false prophets.
      In the warnings about deceivers disciples of Jesus are in view, not the larger world hostile to God. “Lawlessness” may characterize the fallen world order, but the concern of the Discourse is with lawlessness among disciples caused by deceivers.
      What counts in the end is faithful endurance in witness and through tribulation. The activity of deceivers is part of the “tribulations” disciples must face, 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 the very path 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 are not to be “troubled” by hatred and persecution; contrary to expectations, persecution creates gospel opportunity.
Jesus portrays a people persecuted by Jewish and secular authorities; by both religious and political interests. Disciples constitute a people distinct from both Jews and Gentiles, both of which remain hostile to Jesus, his message and followers.
      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 to the Church is not unbelievers or persecuting authorities, but deceivers active 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 and not conditions in the outside world. Too often believers are surprised by lawlessness and betrayal by supposed church leaders.
      Deceivers are mixed in among the “wheat” until the end of the age. On 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).
      Persecution, deceptions, wars, international conflict, earthquakes, and other calamities are not “signs” by which the time of the end can be calculated. They are events disciples see and endure in the period between Christ’s death and return. They are characteristic of Christian life throughout this entire period.
      Finally, Christ’s declaration that the “end” will not come until the “Gospel of the kingdom is proclaimed to the whole habitable earth” provides the key. It is not events in Jerusalem or the Middle East that determine when Jesus returns in all his glory, but the completion of the gospel mission. The logic may be circular but ambiguous it is not: the “end” cannot come until the gospel mission is complete. Since the end has not arrived, the task remains unfinished.

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