03 January 2019

Wars and Rumors of War, Signs of the End?

Sermon on the Mount
Jesus began his Olivet Discourse with a sharp warning to beware deceivers who claimed his authority and spread rumors about wars, earthquakes and other calamities. Such men would succeed in “deceiving many.”
(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 13:5-8; Luke 21:8-11).       This warning is repeated several times in the Olivet Discourse; “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).
      In this passage, Jesus provides a list of calamitous events that are NOT signs of the end, some of the very “signs” to which deceivers will point as evidence of the end’s proximity. The stress falls on what the disciples will “hear” about such signs, presumably from deceivers. The point is not that disasters will not occur but that they are not signs of the end; they are not keys that decode the future or prophetic timetables.
      Tragically, Christ’s words too often have been used to provide lists of prophetic “signs of the times,” the very things Jesus explicitly said do not signal the end.
     In this Discourse, Jesus responded to his disciples and employed the Greek plural pronoun or “you” in doing so (“ye” in the King James Version). He described things they would “hear.” The Discourse was addressed first to followers of Jesus that lived in the first “Christian generation.” The disciples do represent a larger group but remain constituent parts of it. Projecting this warning exclusively onto a “generation” centuries into the future ignores the literary context and historical setting.

     Christ’s warning about deceivers is placed first because it is central to his 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 due to preachers that disseminate false information and point to false “signs.”
     “For many will come upon 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; they claim his authority. The target of deceivers is not the world in general but believers in particular.

Natural and Man-made Disasters
        Jesus continues:  “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 disciples hear from the deceivers. “Reports of wars” reiterates the point – this is what you will hear, reports about wars and earthquakes occurring in different places.
     The issue is not whether wars occur or the accuracy of said reports, but the source of the reports.  False prophets and other deceivers 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; the end is not yet.”
     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. At most, they mark a “beginning”, not an end. Jesus acknowledges such things do occur but 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 Nebuchadnezzar by Daniel. The soothsayers and astrologers of Babylon failed to disclose and interpret the king’s dream; only Daniel did so 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 mark the start of the “last days,” the time of fulfillment (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).

Birth Pains
     The image of “birth-pains” is common in scripture for the suddenness and inevitability of destruction upon the unprepared, 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 increases in frequency or intensity of any of such calamities, 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, at least in prophetic terms? Jesus provides no insight on such matters. Instead, he exhorts 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 or that the “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 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 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
     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 who point to manmade and natural catastrophes as “signs” of the end.
     Disciples must not be alarmed by such claims or actual events. 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.
    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.

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