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29 January 2019

Olivet Discourse (Part 2) – Deceivers & Tumults

Jesus Teaches
“Signs of the Times” (Matthews 24:4-14)
Jesus began his discourse by warning of deceivers who would 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 at pivotal points; “many false prophets will arise and deceive many”; false messiahs and false prophets will show signs and wonders “to deceive even the very elect” (24:11, 24-25).
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 of his words is on what the disciples would “hear,” presumably from said deceivers.
The point is not that disasters would not occur but that they do not constitute signs of the end; such events are not keys with which to decode the future or calculate prophetic timetables. Tragically, Christ’s words have been all too often used by preachers to provide lists of prophetic “signs of the times.” The very things that Jesus said do not signal the end are cited commonly 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, and ones that lived in the first “Christian generation.”
In this context, the disciples represent a larger group; however, they remain parts of it. Projecting this warning exclusively onto a “generation” many centuries in the future ignores the literary setting.
Christ’s warning about deceivers is placed at its start because of its centrality to the Discourse as a whole. 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 due to preachers that disseminate 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 (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 from the deceivers. “Reports of wars” reiterates the point.
The issue is not whether wars will occur or even the accuracy of said reports but, instead, their source. In this context, the only possible source is the deceivers about which Jesus now warns. 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 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; evidence that the present age cannot continue forever. Jesus acknowledges such things do and will continue to occur, but he does not 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 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 Christ’s 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 (cp. Acts 2:16-21; Hebrews 1:1-3). Two such 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, but 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 listed, 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; 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.
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 in his Discourse, 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 also alludes 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 claim to know the timing of the end or of its nearness presume to know what Christ said God alone knows. Such claims mark out men and women who are deceivers.
Christ’s 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 of the Discourse expands on Christ’s warning about deceivers. Disciples also will experience betrayal and tribulation, even to the point of martyrdom (Matthew 24:9). The gospel of Mark adds 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 that had the authority to punish Jews who deviated from doctrinal norms and practices. This points to the persecution of believers within Jewish settings.
The New Testament 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 further 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 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” (Matthew 24:14; Mark 13:10). If Jesus gave a definitive “sign” of the end, the completion of the church’s mission is it.
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” (Matthew 24:3), though it is difficult to calculate when this “sign” has or will reach its conclusion.
Persecution will cause 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 and kings. Moreover, God’s Spirit enables effective testimony before the courts of this age (Luke 12:11-12; 21:12-16).
Jesus next repeats his warning about deceivers. 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 will grow cold”). In the second case, “many” has by the definite article; it is the same group, “the many,” deceived by the false prophets. In this warning, 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 among them.
What counts in the end is faithful endurance in witness and through tribulations. 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 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 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 him and his 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 posed to the Church is not from unbelievers or persecuting authorities but from 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 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). But it is not events in the Middle East, wars in Europe, or the latest earthquake in California that determine when he will come; instead, the completion of the gospel mission is the crucial event.

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