22 April 2020
In the study of the book of Daniel, we have looked at prophecies which took place subsequently after the times of Daniel and also extend to the “latter days”, indicating the ‘last days ‘(period between first and second comings of Christ) and also point to the end-time (i.e.the time just before Christ’s second return).
It is during this study that we encounter the outbreak of covid-19 and some may be wondering whether this global outbreak is part of the signs of the times.
In the light of all these, it may be timely for us to consider the signs of the times; we need to bear in mind that such a study may evoke disagreement from different quarters and some may also be indignant at some of the conclusions shared here. However, this covers conclusions from the study of scriptural passages thus far and we must be open to further light given by God’s Spirit in this study as it touches on areas which may become clearer as the end-time approaches.
“He answered them, “When it is evening you say,’It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times” (Matthew 16:2-3).
Jesus rebuked the Pharisees and the Sadducees here for not being able to discern the signs that the Messiah predicted by the prophets was already in their midst. Their refusal to discern these signs was their condemnation. The signs of the times is commonly used to describe certain happenings or situations which are said to precede or point to the Second Coming of Christ. Matthew 16 is perhaps the only passage where the expression ‘the signs of the times’ is used in the Bible and here the way the Lord Jesus used it indicates that it is used not primarily to refer to what is still future but to what God has done in the past and is revealing in the present. Of course, the expression about which Jesus spoke also pointed to the future. If the Pharisees and Sadducees were to continue to fail to recognise Jesus as the Messiah, future judgement would await them and all those who followed them. The signs of the times described in the New Testament characterise the entire period between Christ’s first and second coming, and every decade of that period. The signs of the times therefore summon the church to a constant watchfulness.
God’s people should be on alert to discern the signs of Christ’s return in the processes of history; there may be spectacular signs like earthquakes or famines for instance, but the signs would primarily be in the nonspectacular processes of history. In fact, we are told in Scriptures, that spectacular signs are specifically associated with the kingdom of Satan; they could therefore be misleading. In 2 Thess. 2:9, the coming of the man of lawlessness (antiChrist) will be “with all power and with pretended signs and wonders”.
The signs of the times are not meant for us to use to date the exact time of Christ’s return. Christ Himself condemned all such attempts when He told us that no one knows the day or the hour of His return, not even Himself (Mark 13:32; Matt. 24:36).
Let us look at the signs of the times in general:-
The signs of the times reveal first of all that the great victory of Christ has been won, and that therefore the decisive change in history has occurred. They reveal that God is at work in the world, fulfilling HIs promises and bringing to realisation the final consummation of redemption. The central meaning of history: the Lord rules and is working out his purposes. History is not going around in circles; it is progressive and pointing forward to the end of history i.e. the return of Christ. The signs point forward on the basis of what God has already done in the past.
Eschatological preaching bears witness to the future from the point of view of the salvation which has already come. The signs point both to the past and the future. They underscore the already-not yet tension in which the New Testament church lives: already we live in the light of Christ’s victory, enjoy the firstfruits of the Holy Spirit, are new creatures in Christ – but we are not yet what we shall be, and therefore look forward eagerly to the glorious return of our Lord.
Secondly, the signs of the times reveal the continuing conflict in history between the kingdom of God and the power of evil. We can expect the struggle between the forces of God and the forces of Satan to continue throughout the history of the world. In the book of Daniel, we see how the evil one used pagan rulers to persecute the people of God and yet, in what seemed to be defeat for the forces of God, we see clearly God still sitting on the throne and His sovereignty remained intact and He overruled the situations, at times permitting evil, often punishing evil with evil, bringing good out of evil, using evil to test and discipline His people and overruling the actions of men for the eternal good of those He loves. The signs also reveal the continuing presence both of the grace and longsuffering of God and of the wrath of God. The One whom we await will come both as Saviour and Judge.
For the believer, even when he sees the unpleasant signs like apostasy, false prophets, false Christs, persecution and tribulation, he is not discouraged because he knows that antichristian forces are always under God’s control, and can never defeat God’s ultimate purpose. He knows too, that even these unpleasant signs are to be expected, and are indications that Christ’s return is on the way.
Although the signs of the times are indeed present throughout the entire history of the Christian Church, it would appear that before Christ returns some of these signs will assume a more intense form than they have had in the past. The signs will become clearer, and will move on to a certain climax. Apostasy will become far more widespread, persecution and suffering will become “the great tribulation”, and antichristian forces will culminate in the “the man of lawlessness” (the antiChrist, seen also in the book of Daniel). When Christians suffer tribulation or persecution, this is to be recognised as a sign of the approaching return of Christ. The question is, ” Is our faith strong enough to withstand tribulation?
Apostasy is indeed one of the signs of the times. We may assume that those who fall away will be at least outwardly associated with the people of God.The apostasy will occur within the ranks of the members of the visible church. Those who are true believers will not fall away (John 10:27-29; 1 Pet. 1:3-5) but many who have made an outward profession of the faith will do so. When so-called Christian leaders deny cardinal teachings of the Bible like the bodily resurrection of Christ and still claim to be theologians – surely this is apostasy. When preachers proclaim myths instead of facts, existentialist philosophy instead of Christian theology, humanism instead of the truth of the gospel – surely this is apostasy. The final apostasy will come in the person of antiChrist; we must always be ready, praying for grace that we may continue to stand fast in the faith.
Discerning the signs of the times, therefore, has important implications for our daily conduct. It means “making the most of the time, because the days are evil” (Eph.5:16). It means to “walk as children of light” (Eph. 5:8). In Romans 13 the Apostle Paul appeals to his readers to show by the quality of their lives that they know what time it is on God’s clock: “Besides this you know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; let us conduct ourselves becoming as in the day” (Rom. 13: 11-13).
The Apostle Paul, when preaching the gospel at Lystra, went through a very traumatic experience. Jews from Antioch and Iconium came, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. But when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and enter the city, and on the next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe. When they had preached the gospel to that city, and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:19-22).
Many of us must have read this passage but do we pause and seek to enter into the experience of Paul? He was stoned, dragged out of the city and left for dead. It means that the stoning was severe to the point that they thought he was dead. It must have been very painful, with severe bleeding and injuries; but we read that Paul just rose up and the next day went on to preach the gospel at Derbe (a city some 100km away). Imagine walking some100km with all the pain and injuries and continuing to preach the gospel and making many disciples. And on top of this, Paul returned with Barnabas to the very city where he experienced the severe stoning with the expressed purpose of encouraging and strengthening the believers in Lystra and the other two cities. When Paul said that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God, he was not saying something abstract but he knew what he was saying and he actually experienced what he was saying.
If we do enter into Paul’s experience with the help of the Holy Spirit, would we continue to complain about inconveniences, misunderstandings, minor illnesses and pain in our christian service? Do we brood and doubt God regarding why He allows us to go through such problems even though we serve Him faithfully – surely we expect something better than all these ‘letdowns’. Indeed, is our faith strong enough to withstand tribulation? Will we endure and persevere until the end?
The Lord Jesus Himself said, “But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:13). This was said on the Mount of Olives when He was sharing about the signs of the close of the age. Jesus refers both to the impending destruction of Jerusalem and to the end of the age, the former being a type of the latter. In this Olivet discourse, Jesus referred also to the ‘abomination of desolation’ spoken by prophet Daniel as happening again.The second fulfilment of the prophecy of this desolation was to take place at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70A.D., when the Roman emperor Titus and his legion would enter the holy city with banners containing the image of the emperor – an image worshiped by the Romans of that day.
We may therefore expect that there will be a third major fulfilment of the “abomination of desolation” prediction at the end of the age and will involve the antiChrist.
Though the appearance of the man of lawlessness will bring about unspeakable sufferings for the church, the people of God have nothing to fear, since Christ will crush him. Hence the predominant mood in the thinking of the church about the antiChrist must be one of optimism rather than pessimism.
In the meantime, we must always be alert to the presence of antichristian forces, movements, and leaders in our own day, as one of the continuing signs that we are living ‘between the times’.
Finally, Jesus also refers to signs which indicate divine judgements: wars, earthquakes, and famines. Similar statements are found in parallel passages: Mark13:7-8 and Luke 21:9-11. Here pestilences are also mentioned and the global pandemic would be in this category. These signs mean that the present world is under God’s curse (Gen. 3:17), and that the wrath of God is constantly being revealed from heaven against the ungodliness and wickedness of men (Rom. 1:18). These signs are constant reminders that the Judge is standing at the doors (James 5:9). But these signs do not mean that they are strictly signs of the end (Matt. 24:6). The signs point toward the end and provide a pledge that it will come. They are indications that God is working out HIs purpose in history. In the midst of these signs, the missionary preaching of the gospel to all the nations is, in fact, the outstanding and most characteristic sign of the times.It gives to the present age its primary meaning and purpose. This is a time of grace, a time when God invites and urges all men to repent and be saved. God’s wrath against wickedness and ungodliness are in one sense, a warning to the ungodly of the judgement to come; but it is also a time for God’s people to have their faith tested and refined and a call to them to preach the gospel not just through their words but also through the quality of their christian lives. The messenger of the gospel must reflect the reality of the gospel in their lives. If we respond like people of the world in such times, we become stumbling blocks to them instead of being effective witnesses for Christ.