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Testing the Prophets (Again)

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As this millennial decade comes to an end and North Korea is rattling its military sword, popular Christian writers will reach into their prophecy bags, appeal to the Bible, and tell us that the end is near. The more judicious ones don’t come right out and say Jesus’ coming will take place in “our generation”; they temper their claims with something like this: “So is the end of the world near? I don’t know for certain, but clearly there are signs of the times.” Greg Laurie, like so many prophecy writers past and future, adds a caveat after spending a dozen or more paragraphs marshalling what he believes are incontrovertible evidences that the end must be near. No one would pay much attention to articles on prophecy if their authors didn’t suggest in nearly dogmatic terms that Jesus IS returning very, very, very soon.

So what evidence does Laurie muster to answer the question, “Are these signs of the times?” Let’s take the Korean conflict. Laurie believes that this is a prophetic sign based on the often cited “wars and rumors of wars” wording found in Matthew 24:6. But let’s put the conflict in perspective. First, it’s just one more of countless skirmishes and wars that could be offered and have been offered into evidence through the ages that the last days were near. Second, the reason there’s a North and South Korea is because there was a Korean War (1950-1953) where more than 36,000 Americans died and nearly 93,000 were wounded. My father was one of the wounded. He had his right leg blown off.

I suspect that in the early 1950s prophetic speculators claimed the Korean War was a sign of the end, just like they did with WWI and WWII, Vietnam, and the first and second Iraq wars. A sign ceases to be a sign when it always happens. Jesus’ reference to wars and rumors of wars referred to His contemporary audience (notice the use of “you”) and the time period of “this generation” (Matt. 24:34).

Some will argue that world wars are what Jesus has in view in the Olivet Discourse. “[R]ather than the local war in Judea, the account in Matthew depicts something on a much broader scale. In the words of Craig Evans, ‘the expectation of global warfare and chaos. . . . However, there were no major wars prior to the Jewish revolt.’” [1] First, Jesus is clear, “you will be hearing of wars and rumors of war.” Jesus identifies the audience that would hear about these wars, both real and rumored. He couldn’t be any clearer. Second, it’s important not to read modern-day definitions of war and how ancient peoples understood and used the terms “nations” and “kingdoms” into the Bible. Even though Rome “kept the peace” (Pax Romana), wars or “battles” among subjected peoples were still going on. Wars during a time of peace are signs, not during times of war. There’s more:

In A.D. 40 there was a disturbance at Mesopotamia which (Josephus says) caused the deaths of more than 50,000 people. In A.D. 49 a tumult at Jerusalem at the time of the Passover resulted in 10,000 to 20,000 deaths. At Caesarea contentions between Jewish people and other inhabitants resulted in over 20,000 Jews being killed. As Jews moved elsewhere, over 20,000 were destroyed by Syrians. At Scythopolis, over 13,000 Jews were killed. Thousands were killed in other places, and at Alexandria 50,000 were killed. At Damascus, 10,000 were killed in an hour’s time. These were not wars of a world-wide scope as we know the world today. They were in Galilee, and in Syria, and in the areas east and south of Judaea. And Judaea was in revolt against Rome, “while the armies of Spain, Gaul and Germany, Illyricum and Syria, converged upon Italy, to decide who should succeed to Nero’s purple.”

If these numbers are accurate, then these conflicts certainly qualify as “wars.” The Roman historian Tacitus (A.D. 56–117) (Histories, 1.2) writes of the period: “I am entering on the history of a period rich in disasters, frightful in its wars, torn by civil strife, and even in peace full of horrors. . . . There were three civil wars; there were more with foreign enemies; there were often wars that had both characters at once. . . . There were disturbances in Illyricum; Gaul wavered in its allegiance; Britain was thoroughly subdued and immediately abandoned; the tribes of the Suevi and the Sarmatae rose in concert against us; the Dacians had the glory of inflicting as well as suffering defeat; the armies of Parthia were all but set in motion by the cheat of a counterfeit Nero.” Even though Tacitus describes these conflicts as “wars,” “civil strife,” and “civil wars,” H. Wayne House argues “the conflicts within the Roman Empire were not really wars between kingdoms and nations in the first century A.D., as described in the Olivet Discourse.” [2] Nations dominated by Rome still considered themselves to be national entities. Israel is a perfect example, a point Pilate and his fellow Romans understood (Matt. 27:11, 37, 42). It’s not any different today. Nations within the former Soviet orbit thought of themselves as particular nations. In fact, that’s what they are today!

Laurie also mentions earthquakes, pestilence, and famines as additional contemporary signs that Jesus’ coming must be near. He writes:

The catastrophic tsunami of Dec. 26, 2004, was caused by the fourth most powerful undersea earthquake on record, an earthquake so forceful that it moved the entire island of Sumatra 100 feet to the southwest from its pre-quake position. Geologists said it literally sent the entire planet vibrating and actually interfered with the Earth’s rotation to the degree that time stopped for three milliseconds. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, earthquakes are increasing. Every decade for the past five decades has increased the number of earthquakes – not just minor ones, but what are now called “killer quakes.” It seems as though every catastrophic earthquake that occurs is said to be the strongest ever. Then another killer quake will come along that is even worse than the ones before.

Earthquakes have occurred and been recorded for thousands of years. The OT (Amos 1:1; Zech. 14:5) mentions them as does the NT. Jesus doesn’t say one thing about an increase in the number of earthquakes or their magnitude. He said, in various places there will be “great earthquakes” (Luke 21:11; cf. Matt. 24:7; Mark 13:8 where the Greek word mega [“great”] is not used), and there were. Recorded in the NT, after Jesus’ prophecy and prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, there were a number of “great earthquakes” (Matt. 27:51, 54; 28:2; Acts 16:26). If revelation was written prior to A.D. 70, as I believe it was, then there were other earthquakes (Rev. 6:12; 8:5; 11:13, 19; 16:18). Earthquakes were as common in Jesus’ day as they are in our day. The difference is that we have more sophisticated ways to measure and record them.

Flavius Josephus (A.D. 37 –100), an eyewitness to the events surrounding Jerusalem’s destruction in A.D. 70, describes an earthquake in Judea of such magnitude “that the constitution of the universe was confounded for the destruction of men” (Wars of the Jews, 4.4.5). [3] He goes on to write that the Judean earthquake was “no common” calamity, indicating that God Himself had brought it about for a special purpose. One commentator writes: “Perhaps no period in the world’s history has ever been so marked by these convulsions as that which intervenes between the Crucifixion and the destruction of Jerusalem.” [4]

Three earthquakes shook Rome after Jesus’ Olivet prophecy and prior to Jerusalem’s destruction: A.D. 51 (Tacitus, Annals 12.43.1.), 53 (Syncellus, P 336C), and 57 (Hieron, Chronicles, p. 182) (see here). A later earthquake destroyed the city of Laodicea around A.D. 60. Tacitus (Annals 14:27) notes: “One of the famous cities of Asia, Laodicea, was that same year overthrown by an earthquake, and, without any relief from us, recovered itself by its own resources.” In A.D. 62, an earthquake rocked Pompeii. Since the generation between A.D. 30 and 70 is past, there is no reason to attach prophetic significance to earthquakes in our day as a fulfillment of Matthew 24:7. They are not signs of the nearness of Jesus’ return in our generation, but they were a prelude to the coming of Jesus in judgment against Jerusalem in the generation of the apostles since He clearly stated that all He had mentioned prophetically in the Olivet Discourse would take place before “this generation” passed away (Matt. 24:34).

What about famines? Jesus mentions them in Matthew 24:7. Secular historians report that there were famines [5] and the Bible does as well. Consider these words from Luke’s chronicle of the period: (Acts 11:28–29): “And there stood up one of them named Agabus, and signified by the Spirit that there should be a great famine over all the world: which came to pass in the days of Claudius. And the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren that dwelt in Judea.” The Greek word translated “world” (oikoumene rather than kosmos; also see Matt. 24:14 and Luke 2:1) in most translations is better translated as “inhabited earth.” “Josephus, writing in his Antiquities at the end of the first century, spoke of a severe famine in Palestine between the years AD 44 and 48.” [6]  If the famine during the reign of Claudius (A.D. 41-54) is not a fulfillment of Jesus’ words, then nothing is. And yet, Wayne House dismisses Luke’s report with this claim: “Neither Luke nor the apostle Paul, apparently, connected this famine with prophetic fulfillment from the Olivet Discourse.” [7] This is hardly an argument. Note the use of House’s use of “apparently.” I suspect that that those who knew of Jesus’ prophecy, apparently, made the connection, especially those suffering because of it.

This article has gotten too long. I’ll take up the rest of Greg Laurie’s arguments in tomorrow’s article.

  1. Craig A. Evans, “Mark 8:27–16:20,” Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 34B (Dallas: Word Books, 2001), 307. Quoted in H. Wayne House, “Josephus and the Fall of Jerusalem: An Evaluation of the Preterist View on Jerusalem in Prophecy, Pre-Trib Study Group” (December 8, 2008): www.pre-trib.org/data/pdf/House-JosephusandtheFallof.pdf[]
  2. House, “Josephus and the Fall of Jerusalem: An Evaluation of the Preterist View on Jerusalem in Prophecy, Pre-Trib Study Group.”[]
  3. Quoted in Thomas Scott, The Holy Bible Containing the Old and New Testaments, According to the Authorized Version; with Explanatory Notes, Practical Observations, and Copious Marginal References, 3 vols. (New York: Collins and Hannay, 1832), 3:108.[]
  4. Edward Hayes Plumptre, “The Gospel According to St. Matthew,” Ellicott’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, ed. Charles John Ellicott, 8 vols. (London: Cassell and Company, 1897), 6:146.[]
  5. “Although Judaea was ruled by the Romans, the governors there had practiced the same kind of religious tolerance as was shown to Jews in Rome. However, Roman tactlessness and inefficiency, along with famine and internal squabbles, led to a rise in Jewish discontent.” See here.[]
  6. Walter A. Elwell and Philip W. Comfort, eds., “The Acts of the Apostles,” Tyndale Bible Dictionary (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001), 12.[]
  7. House, “Josephus and the Fall of Jerusalem: An Evaluation of the Preterist View on Jerusalem in Prophecy, Pre-Trib Study Group.”[]

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