There has been a lot of talk about the End Times recently, for obvious reasons. People are making reference to the signs of the end from Matthew 24. Sadly, this passage is misunderstood. A careful examination of it will show that what Jesus is saying is that we are NOT to look at natural and human disasters as signs of the end. Here is part of the passage in question so you can refer to it.
1 Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. 2 “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”
3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
4 Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you. 5 For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. 6 You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 7 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are the beginning of birth pains. (NIV)
The way we typically read this chapter today reduces its meaning to something mostly useless for all Christians through history except for those who will be alive when Jesus comes back. For the rest of us (or the rest of them, if I happen to be alive on that glorious day), this text produces a life punctuated by periods of panic-stricken expectation which amount to nothing. In some circles, people look for the rise of Antichrist, which often includes looking out for the mark of the Beast so that they won’t be tricked into getting it and so go to Hell.
Notice that what he says is that there will be false messiahs, wars, famines and earthquakes. The parallel passage in Luke 21 includes pestilences. This list is what we are drawn to, and we overlook the simple fact that he also says, “Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.” He also says, that this is “the beginning of birth pangs.” The idea is not that everything is fine until right before his return, then history, so to speak, goes into labor. The idea is that the world has been groaning in labor through all of human history. Paul uses the same image in Romans 8:22, “For we know that the whole Creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.” (ESV) See how Paul speaks of this image as an idea he has in common with his readers. At least it required no explanation.
So, when Jesus speaks of false messiahs, wars, pestilences and earthquakes and says, “the end is still to come” and “this is the beginning of birth pangs,” he is saying that natural and human disasters are NOT the sign of the end. We are specifically directed not to panic about these things. All of these events were commonplace before the days of Christ and have been since his ascension. Jesus is saying that history is going to continue as it always has.
If disasters were a sign of Christ’s return, they would be pretty unreliable. I’m going to skip through history, picking events off the top of my head which could very validly have looked like the sign of the end at the time. During the reign of the Emperor Justinian I, Antioch, Christian center and the third largest city in the former Roman Empire and possibly the world, was almost completely destroyed by an earthquake in 526, with massive loss of life. Then the rebuilt city was destroyed again in 528 by another earthquake. Then the world was struck by the deadliest plague to date, which killed millions. During this time, the Byzantine Empire, which saw itself as the protector of Christianity, was almost continually at war.
At the beginning of the 1500s Europe was filled with millennial expectation because of wars with Islam, the extreme corruption of the Church, plagues (starting with the Black Death that killed a third to a half of the population of Europe between 1347-51) and declining agricultural productivity due to the “little ice age” that followed the Medieval warm period. You can’t really understand Martin Luther without also understanding how much he was driven by, and eventually disappointed in, millennial expectation. He perceived that the rediscovery of the gospel of salvation by faith alone in Christ alone had triggered the Time of the End and now the Devil was attacking on every side. A corrupt papacy was “the Abomination of Desolation sitting in the Temple of God.” Because he was convinced it was the end times, Luther did not always deal with his opponents in a loving way (something of an understatement). Over time he came to perceive those who disagreed with him as being agents of the Devil, rather than the sincere people of faith trying to engage in honest dialogue that many of them were. This was the direct consequence of a false millennial expectation which, if disasters were a reliable sign of the end, he had every reason believe.
In 1789 the French Revolution began and set in motion a program to destroy the established social and religious order in Europe, dethroning Christianity, enthroning Reason, executing aristocrats, closing churches, and sparking wars on a scale Europe had never seen. It led to the rise of Emperor Napoleon.
Because of this, Czar Alexander I eventually came to believe that Napoleon was the Antichrist and that he (the Czar) had a divine mission to stop him. Clearly, he was not correct.
In the 1940s the world was at war and Hitler was the picture of arrogance, persecuting the Jewish people and allied with Mussolini, who was trying to recreate the Roman Empire. I read an article written in 1940 that made a fervent, and apparently strong, case that he was the Antichrist and the End Times had come.
Jesus would not give his followers such an unreliable set of signs of his return. An examination of what he said and of history shows that disasters are not a sign of the end. The response Jesus wants from his listeners is a general state of watchfulness. This is no different from the message of the prophets in the Old Testament when they wrote about the Day of the Lord. The fact that one day the Lord will personally visit the Earth in power, judge all nations and individuals, and destroy established structures “overshadows all human history and hence is always near.” (Willem VanGemeren). Disasters, such as the plague of locusts that prompted the writing of Joel, are a picture of the final coming of the Lord, which will be, as far as the world system is concerned, the ultimate disaster.
Notice, too that that what Jesus is saying is in answer to a question that is confused. The disciples had asked when will the Temple be destroyed, what is the sign of Jesus’ coming and of the end of the age. The “coming of Christ” they are talking about is not his return, for they didn’t yet understand that he would go away. The “coming” they are referring to is the coming of the Son of Man into his kingdom, predicted by Daniel in Daniel 7:13-14. Since Jesus had just said that the Temple they admired would be totally destroyed, the disciples assumed that this cataclysmic event would be in conjunction with the final establishment of Jesus as the king ruling the world from Jerusalem. They probably assumed that Jesus would then rebuild the Temple in three days, as he had said.
When we look at Luke 21, we see that Luke included different information than Matthew about this discourse by Jesus. We see there that he clearly says Jerusalem would be destroyed, but that history will continue as normal. So part of Jesus’ message was aimed directly at the generation who would be in Jerusalem during the time of the Jewish Wars (about 40 years in the future).
History tells us that the Christians at this time recognized what was happening and fled from the city before the Romans arrived and so were saved from its destruction. We later believers can see from this prediction both Christ’s awareness that it would happen and also his concern for the safety of the relatively small number of his followers who might erroneously get caught up in Jewish millennial expectations and suffer in a judgment meant for others.
The actual sign of the end is when we see “‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place.” What this is, I will not speculate about, but following the patterns we see in Old Testament prophecies that were already fulfilled, it is probably not something that we can specifically understand ahead of time, but is something that, when it happens, can be recognized.
Just like an Old Testament prophet, Jesus is talking about a future event in a way that has meaning for all generations. His message for those of us who are not living in Jerusalem in the late 60s A.D. and also do not see the “‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place.” is not to be afraid of events. We will suffer and be persecuted, but not always. In any case, he wants us to endure to the end. The world is going on as normal with disasters aplenty. But in spite of and through these disasters he is with us and “this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations…” (Mt. 24:14). We should live in expectation that he could come at any time. We must always be ready, but should live life in human history, loving those around us and making wise, long-term plans.