Chapter 24:4-14 (ESV) - And Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. 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. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.
“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. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 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.
Question to consider: What did Jesus mean by the “whole world” in the proclamation of the gospel?
When it comes to understanding Jesus in this conversation on the Mount of Olives, I think Luke is the clearest in attributing Jesus’ prophecy to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. I also think Luke included details about false Christs, persecution and famines in Acts to demonstrate to his friend, Theophilus, that these words from Jesus were being fulfilled in that generation.
There were many other things in Acts related to the beginning of Jesus’ reign, the disciples healing in Jesus’ name to prove that He was reigning, and the spread of the gospel to people from every tribe and nation. I know we have national uprisings today along with earthquakes and famines so this prophecy can seem rather vague and applied to any age. However, Jesus had just told the Pharisees that He would be sending them prophets and scribes which they would persecute and put to death and emphasized that, “all these things will come upon this generation.” (Matthew 23:36)
I think because of these words from Jesus, the stoning of Stephen was considered by the early church to be the start of the tribulation. So they went from gathering around the apostles’ teaching to returning to their hometowns to preach in their synagogues and establish churches. There were also other extra-biblical historians like Josephus who attested to the political unrest that occurred before that day of judgment.
When Jesus said that the gospel of the kingdom would be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations before the end, the word used for “world” was oikoumenē. This referred to the inhabited world and, more specifically, the Greek-speaking world. Paul declared that this was happening in his letters to the Colossians (1:23) and Romans (1:8).
The warnings at that time were crucial for the survival of the early church. Today, we look at nations rising against nations, earthquakes and famines, and they may fuel our anticipation for His return, but there is nothing that needs to occur for Christ to come back. While we wait, we continue to do the work of the gospel.
Dear heavenly father, thank You for the hope of Christ’s coming. May we look forward to that day and spend our time growing closer to You and doing the work You have called us to do in the world. Amen.