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17 March 2019

Deceivers, Rumors and False Expectations

Jesus began his Olivet Discourse with a sharp warning to beware deceivers who claim his authority to propagate heightened expectations about the future by spreading rumors about wars, famines and natural calamities; false prophets and prognosticators that “deceive many” (Matthew 24:4-8Mark 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 represent a larger group; however, they remain 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 (cp2 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 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 2:16-21Hebrews 1:1-3).
     Two traditional latter day expectations were the rise of deceivers and the resulting apostasy (2 Thessalonians 2:1-41 Timothy 4:12 Timothy 3:1).
     The image of “birth-pains” is a common one in scripture for the suddenness and inevitability of destruction upon the unprepared, not for the frequency or intensity of an event (cpIsaiah 26:17; 66:8; Jeremiah 6:24; 13:21; Hosea 13:13; Micah 4:91 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 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 24:36Mark 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.

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