JESUS & THE LAST DAYS (Part 3) | Signs: Wars, Famine, Persecution

Biblical Exposition | Eschatology

Published on March 14, 2022

Listen to an audio version of this article here.

In our first article, we looked at what Jesus meant when he said that “all these things” would take place before “this generation” passed away. We saw that clearly, Jesus meant that the generation in his day would see the fulfillment of his predictions in Matthew 24. We also saw in our second article that the “coming” that he spoke about was not his final Second Coming at the consummation of time, but rather his coming in judgment upon the unbelieving Jews in Jerusalem which signalled the end of the Old Covenant age. Thus, his predictions in Matthew 24 deal not with the end of the temporal world but rather the end of the Jewish age of redemptive history with its Temple and sacrificial system. His answer to the disciples’ first question of when these things would take place was that they would happen within a generation (40 years) of their time.

(If you haven’t read the first two articles, I’d recommend reading it before you continue in this series as these articles build upon each other.)

In this article, we will begin to examine his answer to the disciples’ second question, “what will be the sign of his coming and the end of the age?” Were these signs meant for the disciples in his day or for a future fulfillment? We’ve already seen that Jesus’s word clearly implies that he meant they would be fulfilled within a generation of his day. Thus, if his predictions did not actually come true, Jesus is a false prophet. Indeed, this has been the contention of atheists such as Bertrand Russell. So, we must examine if they were actually fulfilled in the first century or not.

Let’s begin by reading the passage:

Matthew 24:3–14

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. 9 “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. 10 And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. 11 And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. 12 And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. 13 But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.

The Testimony of Josephus

Josephus’s testimony will be very important in these articles (among other sources) since he was not a Christian (so he was not sympathetic to making up stories that would prove Jesus right), he was an eyewitness to the events leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem, and the records of his writings in which he writes extensively of the events remain fairly well preserved for us today. James Price gives a good summary of who Josephus was:

“Josephus was born at Jerusalem in A.D. 37-38, the first year of the Emperor Caligula’s reign. The time of his death is not known, but he outlived Herod Agrippa, for Josephus records the latter’s death in A.D. 100. Josephus was the son of a priest. He claimed descent from the Hasmoneans. As a young man he was attracted by the teachings of various parties and sects in Palestine but eventually he joined the popular party, the Pharisees. During the procuratorship of Felix, Josephus went to Rome to obtain the release of some arrested priests. Shortly after his return the Jewish war began. Perhaps the impressions of Roman power which he had gained led Josephus to attempt to thwart the foolish rebellion in Palestine. But he was swept into the maelstrom as a partisan and for a time held a position of military leadership in Galilee. After the Roman victories in this region and his arrest, Josephus sought to mediate between the warring groups. It was not a popular position for he was suspected by the Romans and hated by the Jews. He was able, nonetheless, to observe much of the war at first hand. Afterwards he witnessed the triumphal procession of Titus at Rome. He lived there, until his death, in order to receive citizenship and various privileges, and to write his ‘apologies.’” (James L. Price, Interpreting the New Testament, p. 52)

R.C. Sproul notes that “Josephus’s account of many preliminary events reads like a chronicle of fulfilled biblical prophecy. He refers to the rise of false prophets (2.13), a massacre in Jerusalem (2.14), the slaughter of Jews in Alexandria (2.18), and the invasion of Galilee (3.4).” I have personally read large portions of William Whiston’s translation of Josephus’s Complete Works and it is remarkable what he records and how it confirms, in vivid detail, what Christ had predicted. There are other important sources as well such as the Roman historian Tacitus who also lend credibility to the fulfillment of these events which will also be cited in these articles.

William Wotton (1666–1727) says of Josephus,

“He is certainly an author very justly to be valued, notwithstanding all his faults. His history of the Jewish war is a noble demonstration of the truth of the Christian religion: by showing, in the most lively manner, how the prophecies of our blessed Lord, concerning the destruction of Jerusalem, were literally fulfilled in their fullest extent.” (William Wotton, Miscellaneous Discourses, p. 49.)

The difficulties many Evangelical Christians have today in seeing that Jesus’s words in Matthew 24 have already been fulfilled is in part because they are unfamiliar with the historic sources that record their fulfillment. Many are bewildered, looking forward to these events, when they have already passed. However, Christians in the early church recognized the importance of the testimony of Josephus and others to these events which fulfilled Christ’s words and actually used them as a powerful apologetic to the veracity of Jesus’s predictions! Christians today need to recover this, since many fanciful interpretations of this passage as found in popular contemporary End-Times authors and preachers have led to serious error and ridicule of the faith.

Wars and Rumors of Wars (v.6)

One of the most popular phrases in this passage is what Jesus predicts about the disciples hearing of “wars and rumours of wars”. Modern-day interpreters will often point to various news reports of unrest in the Middle East or wars in Africa and other places as “signs of the times”. Popular End-Times author, Tim LaHaye wrote about living in the last days in the wake of World War I. He said that, “There is no question that we are living in the last days…. The fact that we are the generation that will be on the earth when our Lord comes certainly should not depress US.” (Tim LaHaye, The Beginning of the End, p. 171-172). More than a generation later, I guess his prediction didn’t really pan out… yet his books continue to sell!

The Pax Romana

Today, with extremist groups like ISIS and the Taliban as well as international tensions between nations, it is not uncommon to hear of wars. So, it seems like an odd prediction if it was meant for our time to say that hearing rumours of wars would be a sign that the end was near. These days it is fairly commonplace these days in our internet-enabled, media-saturated, instant-reporting culture, to hear of wars!

However, this was not the case in the first century. We must remember the context of the New Testament. It was based in a time and place where the people enjoyed what was commonly known as the Pax Romana – the peace of Rome. Rome had conquered the majority of the known world to them, and with its conquest and having subdued most of her enemies, the people under Roman rule enjoyed a period of relative peace that seemed like it would extend forever.

Origen (A.D. 185-254) speaks of the “abundance of peace that began at the birth of Christ” (Origen, Romans 1:3). Historian Bo Reicke observes that “in the Roman Empire proper, this period of peace remained comparatively undisturbed until the time of Nero.” (Reicke, The New Testament Era, p. 110.) The Romans were quick to squash any insurrections or oppositions, and so, for the most part, the Empire remained at peace. It was actually this relative peace and safety of travel which would help enable the spread of the Gospel throughout the Empire in the early apostolic church! In this context, for Jesus to tell people that there was a time soon coming where there would be widespread unrest and wars would have seemed incredible. Yet this is exactly what happened.

J. Stuart Russell comments concerning the years leading up to Jerusalem’s fall,

“… In Alexandria, in Seleucia, in Syria, in Babylonia, there were violent tumults between the Jews and the Greeks, the Jews and the Syrians, inhabiting the same cities…. In the reign of Caligula great apprehensions were entertained in Judea of war with the Romans, in consequence of that tyrant’s proposal to place his statue in the temple. In the reign of the Emperor Claudius (A.D. 41-54), there were four seasons of great scarcity. In the fourth year of his reign, the famine in Judea was so severe, that the price of food became enormous and great numbers perished. Earthquakes occurred in each of the reigns of Caligula and Claudius. Such calamities, the Lord gave His disciples to understand, would precede the ‘end.’ But they were not its immediate antecedents. They were the ‘beginning of the end’; but ‘the end is not yet.’” (Russell, The Parousia, p. 69-70)

The Roman historian Tacitus (56-c120 AD) writes of this period,

“The history on which I am entering is that of a period rich in disasters, terrible with battles, torn by civil struggles, horrible even in peace. Four emperors fell by the sword; there were three civil wars, more foreign wars, and often both at the same time.” (Tacitus, Histories, 1:2).

Additionally, in that time there was a growing violent Jewish rebel movement. They believed that they had to rise up and throw off the oppression of Rome on the Jewish people. However, many of their attempted rebellions were squashed by the Romans. Josephus tells of a day in which

“the people of Cæsarea had slain the Jews that were among them on the very same day and hour [when the soldiers were slain], which one would think must have come to pass by the direction of Providence; insomuch that in one hour’s time above twenty thousand Jews were killed, and all Cæsarea was emptied of its Jewish inhabitants.” (Josephus, Wars, 2:18:1)

The disruption of the Pax Romana (Peace of Rome) by the Jewish War and Roman Civil Wars occurred suddenly in a period of violent tumult, when Rome went through four Emperors (A.D. 68-69) and the Roman historian comments that it “was almost the end” (Tacitus, Histories 1:11).

This period of history fits exactly what Jesus had predicted would come upon his first-century hearers within their generation in Matthew 24.

Famines, Pestilence and Earthquakes (v.7-8)

Another sign that Jesus says will signal the end of the Jewish age is that there will be famines. We actually don’t even need to go outside the Bible to see the fulfillment of this. In Acts, Luke records that, “in these days prophets came from Jerusalem to Antioch. Then, one of them, named Agabus, stood up and showed by the Spirit that there was going to be a great famine throughout all the world, which also happened in the days of Claudius Cæsar.” (Acts 11:27-28). Here we have the prophet Agabus predicting and preparing the people for the coming famine in the land.

Josephus also confirms a famine in Jerusalem. He writes of queen Helena’s aid to the people,

“Now her coming was of very great advantage to the people of Jerusalem; for whereas a famine did oppress them at that time, and many people died for want of what was necessary to produce food withal, queen Helena sent some of her servants to Alexandria with money to buy a great quantity of corn, and others to Cyprus, to bring a cargo of dried figs…” (Josephus, Antiquities, 20:2:5).

The Early Church Historian Eusebius (c.260-340 AD) wrote,

“Caius had held the power not quite four years, when he was succeeded by the emperor Claudius. Under him the world was visited with a famine, which writers that are entire strangers to our religion have recorded in their histories. And thus the prediction of Agabus recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, Acts 11:28 according to which the whole world was to be visited by a famine, received its fulfillment.” (Eusebius, Church History, 2:8.1)

The Roman historian Tacitus wrote:

“Many prodigies occurred during the year. Ominous birds took their seat on the Capitol; houses were overturned by repeated shocks of earthquake, and, as the panic spread, the weak were trampled underfoot in the trepidation of the crowd. A shortage of corn, again, and the famine which resulted, were construed as a supernatural warning.” (Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome, 12:43)

With regards to pestilences, they usually accompany periods of famine and there are other records confirming this during this period.

Another sign in addition to the famine and pestilence was the occurrence of earthquakes (Matt. 24:7). I remember growing up in Trinidad, anytime we would feel an earthquake there were certain people who would raise an eyebrow and comment on it being a sign that we were close to the end times. However, Jesus had a much sooner fulfillment in mind. This period in the first century was actually filled with accounts of many significant earthquakes. J. Marcellus Kik writes,

“And as to earthquakes, many are mentioned by writers during a period just previous to 70 A.D. There were earthquakes in Crete, Smyrna, Miletus, Chios, Samos, Laodicea, Hierapolis, Colosse, Campania, Rome, and Judea. It is interesting to note that the city of Pompeii was much damaged by an earthquake occurring on February 5, 63 A.D.” (Kirk, An Eschatology Of Victory, p. 93).

Thus, the historical records of wars, famines, and earthquakes give evidence to what Jesus said were just the beginnings of the birth pains. The birthing of what though? As we argued in the first article, it was the birth of a new age and the end of the old Jewish Temple age. Anyone who has had a baby would know that birth pains happen over a period of time and intensify just before the birth. This was exactly what we see in the historical record and why it is such an apt metaphor for Jesus to use.

Persecution, Betrayal and Martyrdom (v.9)

Persecution is another thing futurists point to as a “sign of the time”. Whether it is new legislation that discriminates against Christian beliefs, or more severe forms in countries where Christians are imprisoned or even executed for their faith, many today look at these tragedies and say, “Jesus must be coming soon”. How many times have you been in conversation with fellow believers who look at the decay of our culture and see it as a sign that Jesus must be coming back sometime in our day? This is often accompied by some sort of pius sounding resignation of the culture to the flames while Christians are to retreat and focus only on “spiritual” matters.

However, this too can be seen happening within the writing of the New Testament documents. Jesus said in verse 9 to the disciples that, “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death.” Notice who is the “you” that Jesus is speaking to – he’s speaking to the disciples who were before him! His words were directed to them. To say that He was not speaking to them, but rather thousands of years past them would be to make the text nonsensical because it would be like you asking me a direct question, and then I answer about something to happen millennia beyond your lifetime.

In the very beginning, Christians enjoyed relative peace – especially since the majority of early converts were Jews and they were seen as just another Jewish sect by the Romans. However, this would soon change as their exclusive claims about Christ became known. The book of Acts records these increasing instances of persecution, first from the Jews and later from the Romans. Many of Paul’s letters talk about persecution and imprisonment, as do Peter, James and Jude. Paul talks about being betrayed and being done much harm by people like Alexander the coppersmith (2 Tim. 4:14). In the years leading up to Jerusalem’s fall, persecution and betrayal was something the early church experienced and would continue to suffer in increasing measure. Stephen was the first recorded martyr in Acts 7, which also records persecutions that broke out against the early Christian community (e.g. Acts 5, 8, 12). The apostle James was recorded as martyred (Acts 12:2), and Peter and Paul were martyred under Nero around 66 AD.

Again, this period fits exactly what Jesus had predicted would happen.

False Prophets, apostasy and wickedness (v.10-13)

We will comment more on Jesus’s warning about false Christs from verses 4-5 in our next article in this series. Regarding false prophets, J. Stuart Russel comments,

“False Christs and false prophets began to make their appearance at a very early period of the Christian era, and continued to infest the land down to the very close of Jewish history. In the procuratorship of [Pontius] Pilate (A.D. 36), one such appeared in Samaria, and deluded great multitudes. There was another in the procuratorship of Cuspius Fadus (A.D. 45). During the government of Felix (A.D. 53-60), [Flavius] Josephus tells us ‘the country was full of robbers, magicians, false prophets, false Messiahs, and impostors, who deluded the people with promises of great events.” (Russell, The Parousia, p. 69)

Regarding the increase in wickedness and lawlessness, in book 5, Josephus recounts his rebukes against the Jews for their sins. He said, “Wherefore I cannot but suppose that God is fled out of his sanctuary, and stands on the side of those against whom you fight.” (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 5.9.4) He even echoed Jesus’s words (knowingly or unknowingly) and claimed that his own generation was more wicked than any other generation prior. With the rise of radical Jewish rebels, lawlessness was on the rapid increase in those days.

Regarding apostasy, the New Testament attests that the Church was being infiltrated by heresy from early on. Acts 15 records the Jerusalem council having to render an authoritative ruling on issues of justification by faith because of false teaching about keeping ceremonial laws. Paul had to deal with this again later in his letter to the Galatians warning strongly against the “different gospel” of the Judaizers (see Gal. 1:6–9; 2:5, 11–21; 3:1–3; 5:1–12). Paul warned the elders at Ephesus to “be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock” because fierce “wolves” would come and endanger the flock with false teaching (Acts 20:28-30). There were so many dangers of apostasy in the early church,

“Some heretics taught that the final Resurrection had already taken place (2 Tim. 2:18), while others claimed that resurrection was impossible (1 Cor. 15:12); some taught strange doctrines of asceticism and angel-worship (Col. 2:8, 18–23; 1 Tim. 4:1–3), while others advocated all kinds of immorality and rebellion in the name of “liberty” (2 Pet. 2:1–3, 10–22; Jude 4, 8, 10–13, 16). Again and again the apostles found themselves issuing stern warnings against tolerating false teachers and “false apostles” (Rom. 16:17–18; 2 Cor. 11:3–4, 12–15; Phil. 3:18–19; 1 Tim. 1:3–7; 2 Tim. 4:2–5), for these had been the cause of massive departures from the faith, and the extent of apostasy was increasing as the era progressed (1 Tim. 1:19–20; 6:20–21; 2 Tim. 2:16–18; 3:1–9, 13; 4:10, 14–16). One of the last letters of the New Testament, the Book of Hebrews, was written to an entire Christian community on the very brink of wholesale abandonment of Christianity.” (Chilton, Paradise Restored, p.104)

The notable church historian, Phillip Schaff commented on this period that “there is scarcely another period in history so full of vice, corruption, and disaster as the six years between the Neronian persecution and the destruction of Jerusalem.” (Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 1:391) Thus, we see that in the first century leading up to Jerusalem’s destruction, the Christian church was plagued with apostasy, heresy, increasing lawlessness and rebellion around them that threatened their faith – just as Jesus had foretold them. In fact, most of the letters written to churches in the New Testament have warnings and corrections concerning false teaching.

Gospel Proclaimed Throughout the World (v.14)

The last sign Jesus says will precede the end is that the Gospel of the Kingdom would be proclaimed throughout the whole world. Surely this one could not have been fulfilled in the first century! None of the apostles reached the Americas! This surely has to still be in the future… right?

Well, not so fast…

World or Empire?

Firstly, there’s a translation issue. The word in Matthew 24:14 translated as “world” is not κόσμος. As we saw in our last article, where the disciples asked about the end of the “age” (αἰών), not the end of the world, here too some translations render another word – οἰκουμένη – erroneously as “world”. But what does this word, οἰκουμένη, actually mean?

The Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament based on Semantic Domains (Louw-Nida) defines it as, “the Roman Empire, including its inhabitants”. The standard Greek Lexicon (BDAG) entries for οἰκουμένη include: “the earth as inhabited area,” and “the world as administrative unit, the Roman Empire” among other similar shades of use. We see this usage clearly in Luke 2:1 where the Emperor Augustus ordered a census in the whole “οἰκουμένη” – referring to the Roman Empire, not the entire globe. Therefore, when Jesus says that the Gospel of the Kingdom must go throughout the entire οἰκουμένη, he means the entire Roman Empire.

So, did this actually happen before 70 AD?

Yes. It’s actually recorded in the New Testament for us!

“A few years before the destruction of Jerusalem, Paul wrote to Christians in Colossae of “the gospel which has come to you, just as in all the world also it is constantly bearing fruit and increasing” (Col. 1:5–6), and exhorted them not to depart “from the hope of the gospel that you have heard, which was proclaimed in all creation under heaven” (Col. 1:23). To the church at Rome, Paul announced that “your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world” (Rom. 1:8), for the voice of gospel preachers “has gone out into all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world” (Rom. 10:18).” (Chilton, Paradise Restored, p.88 – emphasis mine)

The book of Acts records the spread of the Gospel from Jerusalem, to Judea, to the areas of Samaria and to the ends of the empire – just as Jesus commanded his disciples in Acts 1:8. Concerning the missionary exploits of the disciples and apostles, Lars Qualben writes:

“Tradition assigns the following fields to the various apostles and evangelists: Andrew is said to have labored in Scythia; hence the Russians worship him as their apostle. Philip spent his last years in Hierapolis in Phrygia. Bartholomew is said to have brought the gospel according to Matthew into India. The tradition concerning Matthew is rather confused. He is said to have preached to his own people, and afterward in foreign lands. James Alphaeus is said to have worked in Egypt. Thaddeus is said to have been the missionary to Persia. Simon Zelotes is said to have worked in Egypt and in Britain; while another report connects him with Persian and Babylonia. The evangelist John Mark is said to have founded the church in Alexandria.” (Lars P. Qualben, History Of The Christian Church).

Thus, the disciples and church fulfilled what Christ had said must take place before the end of the age before 70 AD.

So, we see that the signs in Matthew 24:3-14 which Jesus said would precede the end of the age were fulfilled leading up to Jerusalem’s destruction. There were wars and unrest, famines and earthquakes, persecution, betrayals and martyrdom, yet the Gospel of the Kingdom still spread throughout the Roman Empire! This is an amazing testimony to the Spirit-given resilience of the early church and Christ’s promise that the gates of Hell would not prevail against the Church’s advance (Matt. 16:18). It also shows that our Lord’s predictions of what would happen in their generation really did come to pass because he is truly the Messiah who had inaugurated the new covenant and the Kingdom of heaven.

In our next article in this series, we will take a look at the signs he speaks of in verses 15-28, such as the infamous “Abomination of Desolation” and see if these were also fulfilled in the first century.

Articles in this series:

  1. JESUS & THE LAST DAYS | Which Generation Would See the End?
  2. JESUS & THE LAST DAYS | The End of the Age
  3. JESUS & THE LAST DAYS | Signs: Wars, Famine, Persecution
  4. JESUS & THE LAST DAYS | The Abomination of Desolation
  5. JESUS & THE LAST DAYS | The Coming of the Son of Man
  6. JESUS & THE LAST DAYS | The Rapture – Left Behind?

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