3 As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” 4 And Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray. 5 For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. 6 And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. 7 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.
Since Jesus has just divulged that the temple will be knocked to pieces, the disciples take advantage of his openness and ask him for more information about the future. When will the temple be demolished, what will be the signal of your coming (whatever they meant by that!) and what is the signal that this age is coming to an end?
In responding to their questions, Jesus immediately goes practical. “Watch out… don’t panic.” Prophecy of the future is not meant to simply lodge in us as so many data points, but rather is intended to steer us into habits that will prepare us for that prophecied future.
As Jesus begins to speak to the Twelve about what’s in front of them, He warns them about false guides who will come along to lead them away from the truth. Did you hear that? From the first century until now, what did the church need to know about the future? Answer: There will be many teachers speaking in the name of Christ, indeed even some who claim to be Christ’s special representatives (probably the best understanding of “I am the Christ”), who will lead many astray.
Did you hear “many” 2 times? Many false teachers. Many defections. Going forward, Jesus says, the terrain will feature big names with big followings, captivating and trendy teaching that perhaps is just a tiny bit off-centered, gullibility, deception, drift … all within Christianity!
Those who aren’t led astray won’t always feel so good about that fact. They’ll watch many of their compadres drifting away from them and eventually finding their way onto exciting side trails, all the while using familiar language (“in my name”) but with new and compelling nuances. Yes, cool! And meanwhile, the fogeys are still on the same trail (maybe stuck on the same trail?) wondering if they’re just unadventurous and stubborn. Maybe there is something to all this talk of social justice?
Calvin suspects that Jesus emphasized the many to avert just these kinds of despairing thoughts. Our Lord wanted “to prevent the faithful from losing heart at the sight of a great crowd of madmen” who were going away from what Jesus had already described as the “hard way that leads to life” (Matthew 7: 14).
What’s involved with see[ing] that no one leads you astray? 1) A deep familiarity with original sources: that is, biblical truth… which includes mulling over passages in your mind even away from the open bible. 2) Practice in obedience to the small commands (even what little he has will be taken away from him). 3) Some knowledge of church history helps, since the deceiver usually just rewarms his old methods. 4) A healthy skepticism toward trendy ideas, new verbiage, widely-parroted perspectives, big names. 5) Perhaps especially, a wariness of your own crooked heart which continually seeks for ways off the hard path and onto shortcuts marked by ease and acceptance.
Ok, when considering what’s before them in the future, Jesus’ first priority is to warn his disciples to stay on the familiar path, even as many around them succumb to sirens who sing their sweet and lethal songs in the name of Christ.
Secondly, Jesus also is concerned that the disciples not think that the growth and progress of God’s kingdom will be coupled with an emerging political and natural peacefulness. Christ will be given all authority, and He’ll ascend to the right hand of the Father, and some things will never be the same.
However, for the time being, many things won’t have changed, even after Christ has gone to the Father. There will still be wars, threats of wars, reports of wars, wars about to start, wars that may or may not get off the ground depending on variable X.
Under the resurrected Christ, kingdoms will go to war with each other, and victors and losers will emerge from those wars. And sometimes the victors will go on campaigns with many nations and will enjoy a string of victories. Sometimes the war will be a one-off.
Even as the kingdom of God grows its secret growth, some nations will rise to world prominence. Some nations will fall and be disestablished. The majority of nations will plod along.
For the time being, as Christ rules over all the earth in this age, peoples – sometimes arranged by clan or business concerns or religion or skin color or socioeconomic class – will often be at each other’s throats. These hatreds and rivalries aren’t new but were present to our earliest history.
Just as there’s ever been, when Christ ascends to His throne there will be maneuvering and changes of powers, major power, superpowers. Too there will be nations that never seem to get traction. Bullies and bullied and everyone in-between, often changing positions. Movements, unrest, revolutions, calm – all presided over by Christ.
Christ will be the Lord, and under His rule there will be famines and earthquakes and the like, and all the mess and sorrow that goes with those tragedies. Yes, throughout calamities and peace and all the small-scale joys and troubles between, Christ is steering the ship. And here’s Jesus’ point, when He goes to the Father, the plan is for Him to steer the ships of states and nature and society largely along the paths they’ve moved before. And His church will be right in the midst of all this.
So, knowing that their resurrected Sovereign has been given authority over every power, when Christ’s people still see trouble in the world, they are not to panic.
And when those troubles for a time recede, only to regather and flow back with great force, the end is not yet. Did we get that? Earthquakes and wars and such are decidedly not signs of the end of the world! Sometimes a well-meaning Christian will say something like, “More and more earthquakes everywhere – the end is nigh.” No! But rather, Christians are to think, earthquakes, famine, and war – not yet.
Christ wants us to be clear on this point. Great calamities of great scope shouldn’t be the signal for Christians to haul out their most articulate and lurid doomsayers! Rather, we are to recollect that Christ told us that many things will take place under His rule much as they’ve always happened. Moreover, we should also emphasize the obvious point that Christians aren’t to revel in national/ world tragedy (E.g., Clap, clap, finally things are starting to move). Wars etc are bona-fide tragedies and should be mourned over as such.
But also, Christians mourn as those who don’t mourn (1 Corinthians 7:30): we realize that all of these tragedies are going somewhere. And it’s not just that there are better things at the end of them. Something else – these calamities, Jesus maintains, are ultimately productive. They are not the signal that the end is around the corner, but by the deep wisdom and terrible strength of the risen Christ, these calamities are birth pangs from which will issue the new creation.