(4) Watch out that no one misleads you. (5) For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will mislead many. (6) You will hear of wars and rumors of wars. Make sure that you are not alarmed, for this must happen, but the end is still to come. (7) For nation will rise up in arms against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. (8) All these things are the beginning of birth pains. (Matt 24:4–8)
Jesus cautions his disciples not to be alarmed when these events happen, lest they think that the end of the age is imminent, because it will be a time of tumult in the world (politically and naturally) and for the church (false messiahs and teachings).
To describe this period, Jesus uses the metaphor of “beginning birth pangs.” The New American Standard Bible has: “merely the beginning of birth pangs.” The term “merely” is not the most accurate rendering because it suggests that this period will be a cakewalk. Nothing could be further from the truth, otherwise Jesus’ warning not to be mislead and alarmed would not be meaningful. Indeed, it will not be as intense as the labor pains themselves during the great tribulation, which Jesus says will be an unprecedented time for God’s people; nevertheless, the beginning of birth pangs will still be an intensely challenging time physically and spiritually for the church.
When will these beginning of birth pangs take place? Preterism believes that they were all fulfilled near A.D. 70. Historicism takes these events as occurring over the span of the church age. I do not accept these conclusions, since there are better reasons to think that this cluster of events will occur in the future in proximity to our Lord’s coming.
First, the topic of the coming and the end of the age situates this in an eschatological context.
Second, the text suggests that these events will occur in conjunction with each other, not in piecemeal. The thrust of Jesus’ words convey an intensity of earthquakes, wars, famine, and false messiahs, which comports better with the last generation of the church, not the entire church age. Occasional events over the span of church history would not compel Jesus to warn, “make sure you are not alarmed, for this must happen, but the end is still to come.”
Third, Jesus’ use of the birthing metaphor is more intelligible when a single generation is in view: birthing process to start (beginning of birth pangs), followed by labor pains (great tribulation), and climaxed in the delivery (return of Christ). Thus, the import of the birthing metaphor is likely devoid of meaning if the beginning of birth pangs are interpreted as reaching back to the first coming of Christ covering scores of generations.
Fourth, verse nine reads: “Then they will hand you over to be persecuted and will kill you. You will be hated by all the nations because of my name.” The Greek word for “then” is tote, which strongly suggests that a single generation of believers will experience both the beginning of birth pangs and the persecution, making it unlikely that the beginning of birth pangs span the church age.
I would like to propose that the beginning of birth pangs will occur during Antichrist’s campaign when he asserts himself as a world leader while in his unrevealed state during the first half of the seven-year period; but before his actual revealed, Satan-possessed state that makes him the world leader starting at the midpoint. And there are good reasons to think that the beginning of birth pangs correspond to the first three seals in Revelation 6. But this proposal will be for a future article.