Friday, December 21, 2012

The End Back Then, Part 1: Rumors of Wars

While in the Temple courtyard in Jerusalem, Jesus said that He was not the son of David. Observing a poor widow donated all the money she had to the Temple, Mark and Luke recorded how Jesus taught a lesson to His disciples. Before that lesson was given, Mark and Luke record how Jesus rebuked the Teachers of the Law. Matthew expanded that condemnation for most of a chapter.

This is Part 1 of a five part series entitled "The End Back Then." The series entries are:

The End Back Then, Part 1: Rumors of Wars
"The time has come," [Jesus] said. "The Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!" NIV
So were Jesus' first words of public ministry, according to Mark 1:15. They carry a certain sense of immanency. The time has come. The Kingdom of God is near. It is hard to imagine that these words are applicable to something which has not yet happened in the roughly 2000 years since when they were written. Should we still be waiting to see the Kingdom of God? That depends on how you see the signs.

Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21:5-37 (plus Luke 17:22-37) all record several signs, provided by Jesus, which would be the harbingers of the eternal Kingdom of God being established. With the Kingdom would come the end; the end of sin, and the cessation of all of the trials and tribulations of the world as we know it today. Or is "today" too far along in time from these prophesies? Careful consideration of these verses should reveal to us whether or not the end was thought to be back then, or something we should still be expecting.

The prophetic stage is set when some of Jesus' disciples expressed how glorious the Temple in Jerusalem was, and then Jesus replied that it would be completely destroyed (Matthew 24:1-2, Mark 13:1-2, Luke 21:5-6). That shocking statement was the impetus for the question asked in Mark 13:3-4 and Luke 21:7, but most clearly rendered in Matthew 24:3:
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?" NIV
The "this happen" refers to the destruction of the Temple. The "your coming" refers to Jesus' Second Coming, when His Kingdom will be established (Matthew 16:28). The "end of the age" is only slightly trickier to parse out due to the word "age" being used. What does that mean? It comes from the Greek word transliterated as "aiōnos," which is a more emphatic form of "aiōn." The base "aiōn" is an era or age representing a cycle of time, so the emphatic "aiōnos" would be a reference to the greater cycle of time, as in what has been collectively known human existence, and in contrast to the promised eternal era to come with God's Kingdom. You could easily swap out "end of the world" for that final phrase and still have essentially the same meaning. Indeed, several Bible translations do just that.

OK. So how does Jesus reply to these questions that everybody wants to know?

Jesus began by warning of many people who would show up and falsely claim to be the Messiah (Matthew 24:4-5, Mark 13:5-6, Luke 21:8). This is a somewhat vague claim. While we know there have been many false Messiah's, we do not know how many we should expect. It is possible that there were already several false Messiahs wandering around shortly after Jesus' death, which is suggested by 2 Corinthians 11:4, just like how there were allegedly already many antichrists back then (1 John 2:18). So this prophetic point is not much help.

Next, we have the promise of a tumultuous time with "wars and rumors of wars," where nations battle nations, and there are accompanying disasters like famine and earthquakes (Matthew 24:6-8, Mark 13:7-8, Luke 21:9-11). So we have even more vagueness; signs of the types of things which have happened throughout the history of civilization. How can we possibly differentiate between wars or famines which are "signs" and those which are just "normal?" (That question is only valid if you believe that wars, natural disasters, etc. occur without God's control, but that is a topic for a whole other study!)

There is one other oddity. That bit about "rumors of wars" is telling of the time period with which this prophesy applies. We are beyond "rumors" of war. In our inter-connected world, we can know with certainty, via satellite and social media, within such a short time to make the concept of a "rumor" of a war laughable. There either is one, or there is not one, but such was far from the case 2000 years ago. (Unless you include the "war on Christmas," which is truly a figment of the imagination!) Now in Luke's version, the rumors of wars are replaced by "revolutions," suggesting even more turbulence. Let us close out this study with a look at the chaos of that era, and the possible causes of some rumors.

There were, indeed, wars after Jesus. While people usually know about the Roman Empire, not many know about the competing empire of that time; the Parthians. The buffer zone in between these two mighty powers was largely made up of the Kingdom of Armenia, situated to the northeast of Jerusalem, and comprising land which is now part of northern Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Azerbaijan, as well as the present-day nation of Armenia. So here is a short timeline of some of the conflicts and instability following the life of Jesus:

36 CEThe decision of the Parthian King Artabanus II to place his son on the vacant Armenian throne triggered a brief war between Parthia and Rome.
43-96 CEThe Roman conquest of Britain
51 CEIberian prince Rhadamistus conquered Armenia. Paelignus, Roman governor of Cappadocia, invaded and ravished western Armenia.
~53-54 CEParthian King Vologases invaded Armenia, driving out Rhadamistus, but retreated due to a harsh winter epidemic, allowing Rhadamistus to reclaim the kingdom.
54 CEThe people of Armenia revolted and overthrew Rhadamistus. Parthian King Vologases I then installed his brother, Tiridates, on the Armenian throne.
58-61 CEThe Hyrcanians, in the region near the southern end of the Caspian Sea, rebelled against the Parthians.
58-59 CEWar erupted in 58 AD between Rome and Parthia in Armenia, where Roman forces forced the Parthian rulers out of Armenian. The Romans gave the Armenian throne to Tigranes VI.
60-61 CEOn the island of Britain, Queen Boudica led the Iceni tribe in rebellion against the Romans.
61 CETigranes VI invaded Adiabene, a Parthian provence.
62-63 CEParthian King Vologases I and his brother Tiridates aggressively counter-attacked in Armenia, conquering the Roman general Paetus in an embarrassing fashion. But negotiations resulted in Tiridates accepting the Armenian crown from Nero in Rome.
65 CEGaius Calpurnius Piso and others led a conspiracy to claim the Roman crown and slay Nero, but the conspiracy was discovered before its plans were enacted.
66-70 CEThe first Jewish-Roman war, started over religious disputes and taxation, and ended with Jerusalem conquered and the Temple destroyed by the Roman general Titus.
68 CEGaius Julius Vindex of Spain rebelled against Nero's tax policy. Nero sent Vitellius to crush the rebellion.
68-69 CEThe Year of the Four Emperors of Rome. Galba was voted to be Caesar, prompting Nero to flee and commit suicide. Galba started killing all those who opposed him. Otho bribed the Praetorian Guard for a coup d'état' against Galba. Otho seemed to be a better ruler, but Vitellius marched from Germany to claim the throne. Otho was defeated in the Battle of Bedriacum, and then committed suicide in the hopes of stabilizing the empire. Vitellius was named Caesar, but he, too, ruthlessly killed opponents, and extended the same violence to any possible heirs. He nearly bankrupted the empire with parties every day. Meanwhile, many eastern parts of the empire claimed Vespasian as their emperor. Before the eastern legions could reach Rome, Vespasian gained even more support in the empire. Vespasian's forces, led by Marcus Antonius Primus, invaded Italy. In October, the forces led by Primus won a crushing victory over Vitellius' army at the Second Battle of Bedriacum. Vespasian took the throne.

What is the point of this history lesson? There were surely many wars, rumors of wars, and revolutions occurring in the time immediately following Jesus' life, relatively speaking. Furthermore, the conflicts and instability ramped up in intensity and frequency toward 70 CE. So this first part of the "prophesy" was already fulfilled a long, long time ago. These verses were not meant to serve as a warning to us, but rather to those who lived, and died, centuries upon centuries before our time. Or, perhaps more likely, they were written about these events after the fact, in order to bolster the claims of Jesus' imminent second arrival.

These signs of wars and natural disasters were to be "the beginning of birth pains." So the end was not to come exactly when these particular signs appeared, but it was, as the metaphor implies, the beginning of the birth turbulent of the Kingdom of God. While some mothers may argue that they were in pain "forever" while giving birth, we know that birth pains mean that the child will imminently be delivered. We should not expect that the Kingdom of God has yet to be delivered today, roughly 2000 years since the birth pains began.


  1. beginnings of birth pains? Maybe it was Braxton Hicks. :)

  2. Ha! Yeah, maybe it was just Braxton Hicks contractions! :-)