“Jesus told them, ‘Watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in my name, saying, “I am he,” and they will deceive many. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, don’t be alarmed; these things must take place, but it is not yet the end. For nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.'” (CSB – Read the chapter)
We love telling end-of-the-world stories. I’m not really sure why. There’s probably a psychological explanation out there somewhere. But whatever the reason, we love it. Don’t believe me? Do a quick search for how many books and movies and television shows are set in an apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic setting. Not only are there dozens and dozens of movies, but each decade of film history has produced more than the previous with 2010s producing more than double the number of any other decade. It’s almost like there’s a sense of impending doom that is growing with each passing year. Perhaps there’s something to that, but feeling like the end is near is not something unique to this generation. Every generation has had some point at which they felt theirs might be the last. When He began explaining His observation about the destruction of the temple to His disciples, Jesus started with a bit of perspective that seems more important today than it has ever been. Let’s look at this together.
Do you remember the hype surrounding the calendar turn from 1999 to 2000? The transition from the second to the third millennium in the year of our Lord was a pretty dramatic event. The Y2K (that is, “year two thousand”) computer bug was supposed to cripple computers all around the world. What started as a potential computer bug, though, gradually became a threat to life as we know it. The basic issue was that most computer systems had been designed to keep track of the year with simply the last two digits. The turn from 1999 to 2000 was then possibly going to have computers all around the world thinking it was 1900 instead of 2000.
The potential damage from this in a worst-case scenario was certainly bad, but companies and nations and localities all around the world generally prepared for it well in advance with system updates and nothing came of it. That, however, didn’t stop a small fear of computer data malfunctions from blowing up into bona fide fears of the end of the world. A media hungry for views helped fan the flames and as the year slowly ticked away there were not a few people for whom it all became a genuine hysteria. Then midnight came and went, the system updates worked, and nothing came of it. We had successfully dodged a bullet…or perhaps were simply far more concerned than the issue warranted.
As crazy as all the media hype made some folks, in some parts of the Christian world things were even worse. There were not a few individuals and groups who hyped this calendar turn as not simply a possible computer-apocalypse, but the timing of the return of Christ. After all, just look how bad the world around us had grown. There were wars and rumors and wars and natural disasters and the like happening with a disturbing frequency. The signs were all clear. The end must be upon us. More than twenty years later and in a world that is in some ways in far worse shape than our twenty years younger selves could have even imagined (can you imagine trying to explain to someone in the year 2000 that one of the major cultural debates raging today would be over whether or not male and female were really a thing?), I think we can safely say the doomsayers then were all wrong.
After His offhanded comment about the coming destruction of the temple, the disciples wanted – no, they needed – Jesus to explain Himself. He would go on to offer them a word of prophecy about the events of 70 AD that was remarkably specific. When you compare His words here with the events of Rome’s final conquest of Jerusalem, Jesus was really hitting the nail on the head. At the same time, though, He also spoke in terms that were entirely more apocalyptic than that. There is a blending in what follows of predictions of the end of Jerusalem and predictions of the end of the world that is not so easy to tell which is which. Scholars debate where the transition moment comes. Honestly, I don’t think it matters all that much, and there’s a bit of both elements throughout what He says.
Before getting into any of the details, though, Jesus started out by giving His disciples some perspective they were going to need. It is some perspective we need as well. The perspective was this: Things are going to occasionally get crazy in this life. By “crazy” I mean there will occasionally be cataclysmic natural disasters that seem powerfully indicative of a world that’s falling apart. There will be wars that seem to be harbingers of the end of human society as we know it. World War I was called the “war to end all wars,” and yet it had nothing on the scale of World War II just twenty years later. There will be disease pandemics and threats of famine and climate destruction. And when things get crazy, people are going to try and claim the end is here. Don’t buy it. These things are just the pre-show.
The pre-show? You mean things could get even worse? Well, in an absolute sense, things could always get worse than they are. And, when you read through John’s visions collected in Revelation, things will indeed get even crazier the closer we get to the return of the King. Yet we dare not point to any one event as the indicator that we’re almost to that point. Doing that will just distract us from keeping our eyes fixed where they need to be: on the coming King. When we start looking around at our circumstances and trying to interpret the time based on what we see, we will necessarily not be looking at the God who has already promised to carry us through them to the life waiting on the other side of them.
And that, I think, is the real worth of Jesus’ words here. Things may seem crazy now, but they have been crazy before and will get crazy again. We shouldn’t look to our circumstances, whatever they may be, for any clue as to the timing of His return. It will come when we least expect it. Jesus makes that clear as He continues talking with the disciples as we will see over the course of this week and next. Our job is to live ready at all times. We are to pursue the character of Christ without fear or failing in every situation we are in. If we do that, we will be ready for it no matter when it happens. Anything less and we aren’t paying proper attention. We have been living in the end times since Jesus left the scene and we will be until His return. We should not try and get ready when we think the moment is drawing near. We should live ready.