SIGNS OF THE TIMES
By Pastor Glenn Pease
Gene Autry paid 27 thousand dollars for one letter of an old sign. Back in 1923 a real estate developer put up a huge sign on the hill over looking Hollywood, California. It became a symbol for the many who came seeking jobs in the movies. Over the years it became weather worn, and was damaged by vandals. Several entertainers decided it was time to start a save the sign movement. They sold the letters of the old sign to raise money for the new one. Gene Autry bought one of the old signs. The new sign is 4 stories high, and is steel reinforced, and it has a fence to protect it from vandals. It is a state of the art sign, and has to be considered one of the signs of our time. People all over the world recognize this sign from Hollywood. It is a sign of the stars that people idolize in our movies and culture.
Signs have power to move and motivate people. Dorothy Parker, a short story writer and theater critic, had a small office in the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. No one ever came in to see her, and she felt isolated and alone. She solved her problem by hanging a one word sign on her door. She got people coming in to see her all the time. The one word sign simply said Gentlemen. Signs determine the direction people go all the time, and we have to be constantly reading signs when we travel, or we could easily get lost. In a strange city the number one task of a driver is to find the right signs. We are all sign seekers as we travel, for they are essential for arriving at our destination.
Sign seeking can even become a full time job if you are in the situation Steven Callahan found himself in. His small plane went down in the Atlantic, and he was adrift for 76 days. This was the longest any man had ever survived in an inflatable raft. He drifted 1800 miles, and when he was rescued he wrote a book called ADRIFT. He said he spent his days looking for a sign. He was looking for any sign of life. It could be a plane, a fish, a bird, or any sign that would give him hope.
It is a world where people always need a basis for hope, and that is why they seek a sign. This is a world of sign seekers, and the result is that it is a gold mine for sign makers. There is a lot of money in signs, and not just the advertising and neon signs of the business world, but also the signs of the time makers, who make a fortune off people's hunger for signs. Jesus knew Christians would be sign seekers like everybody else, and so to save them a lot of emotional turmoil, and a fortune, he warns them to be on guard against the most common tricks of the sign promoters.
The first one is war and rumors of war. I call your attention to verse 6 where Jesus says, "You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come." Jesus makes it clear that no war or rumor of war is a sign of anything but the depravity of man. It is not to alarm the Christian at all as if it had an significance as to the time of His coming and the end. There have been hundreds of wars since he said this, and even two horrible world wars, but they were in no way signs of the end.
Commentators by the dozens point out that Jesus is teaching that war will be a part of history, and every age will see wars. They cannot be a sign of anything because they are so common. To make war the sign of the end would be like making bank robbery the sign of the end. Commonplace matters of every generation are not of much value as signs of a once in a history event. You need something unique and unusual, and not just everyday human folly. So Jesus says, first of all, don't let talk of war get you alarmed. Now what have Christians often done with this admonition to not get alarmed? They have sounded an alarm with almost every war of significance in history. Not just the cults and sensationalists, but some of the most godly men of history, whom God has used in a mighty way, have fallen into the trap of making some war the sign of the end.
They are not damned for paying no heed to Jesus, and doing what He says they are not to do, but by their disobedience they displease Him, and add confusion where He tried to calm the waters. Dr. Oswald J. Smith of the Peoples Church in Toronto, one of the giants of the 20th century said, "I'm reminded of the fact that the Lord Jesus stated in unmistakable terms that one of the many signs of the approaching end of the age would be talk about war." He was a great man of God, but he jumped to a false conclusion and twisted the words of Jesus to say just the opposite of what He really said. Book after book quotes that war and rumor of war is a sign of the end, and that we should be alarmed, even though Jesus said just the opposite is the case.
This is precisely why Protestants do not believe in a pope or any higher authority having the final say on what the Word of God is saying. The common people can often read the Bible and better hear what God is saying than the so-called experts. The Bible has to be in the hands of the people to balance out the mistakes of leaders. The Apostles themselves misunderstood Jesus and needed to be corrected, and so none of us are beyond misunderstanding the Word. We need each other to bring balance, and to overcome impressions that are not consistent with God's revelation. This is a good example, for many see war as a sign of the end, even though Jesus made it clear that it is not. I don't care what authority you quote, or how many of them you can quote. Jesus said war is not to alarm Christians as a sign of the end. That is my highest authority, so I refuse to get alarmed by any war as being a sign of the end.
Christians have let many wars become occasions to signal to the world that the end is near. Many of the cartoons depicting the doom of the world are aimed at religious fanatics. They have refused to listen to the Lord of history. None of us could escape the impact of the news coverage of the Persian Gulf War. The rumors were wild and I expected a war far beyond the level it came to. Rumors exaggerate war, and there is no way to escape some degree of alarm. Jesus is not saying that we should not care about war and its awful consequences. He is saying that we should not be alarmed that it is a signal that history is about to end. It is not a sign of the end.
If the United States and Russia go to war and blow each other off the map, and destroy a major part of the world, that is something to be alarmed about, but it is not a sign of the end. The work of the church will go on after that until the Great Commission is fulfilled, and the whole world has the Gospel. Jesus said in 24:14 that only then will the end come. Man will never set the agenda for Jesus by all of his wars. They can kill people by the millions, and bloody this planet from one end to the other, but war will never bring history to the end. Only Christ can do that, and He tells us war will not be His means of doing it. It will be the onward Christian soldiers who take the Gospel to the ends of the earth. That is the sign that Jesus says we should give heed to.
Durant in The Lessons Of History tells us that in the last 3,421 years of recorded history there have been only 268 years that have been free of war.
There are always wars going on someplace in the world. If you are going to use war as a sign, you just as well use plane crashes for one as well, for one is as likely as the other to signify the end of history. The problem with using war, or any disastrous event as a sign of the end, is that you have to delude yourself into believing you live in the worst of times, and that your war, or disaster, is worst than anybody else's. This is almost impossible for those who know history.
Listen, for example, to the Roman historian Tacitus who wrote about life in the Roman Empire in 69 A. D. "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. Four emperors perished with the sword. There were three civil wars; there were more with foreign enemies; there were often wars that had both characters at once." After describing some of these he goes on, "Now too Italy was prostrated by disasters either entirely novel, or that recurred only after a long succession of ages; cities in Campania's richest plains were swallowed up and overwhelmed; Rome was wasted by conflagration, its oldest temples consumed, and the Capital itself fired by the hands of the citizens."
He goes on to describe the masses of exiles, and all of the many crimes. The corruption in government was a nightmare, and everyone was out to get what they could at everyone else's expense. He concludes his description with these words: "Slaves were bribed to turn against their masters, and freed men to betray their patrons; and those who had not an enemy were destroyed by friends." These were not exacting the good old days. It they ever develop a real time machine, don't be to quick to sign up for a trip back to the New Testament period in Rome. On the other hand, the trip might do you good, for you would realize it still a fallen world today, but you would lose your illusion that it is the worst of times. Those who latch on the wars and rumor of wars as the sign of the end are in direct opposition to Jesus, and they have filled history with many blunders.
Sign seekers create sign skeptics because they maximize the very thing that Jesus minimized-the wars, rumors of wars, famine, and earthquakes. All of this is just a part of history is what Jesus is saying, and they are no particular sign of the end. They come in all ages, and our age is no exception. If we are to look at current events as the focus of our hope, then we had better be ready for disappointment, for it can't get much better than World War I got for fulfilling all of these signs.
One of the great Bible prophecy experts of his day was Louis Bauman. He published the book Light From Bible Prophecy in 1940. It was well received by the evangelical world, and it was about as good as such a book can get in reading the signs of the times from current events. He shows by extensive evidence that World War I was the greatest war in history. It was the worst war in numbers involved, in cost, and in deaths. It made all previous wars seem pigmy by comparison. Then he gives evidence that the worst famines in history took place at the same time in both China and Russia. Many millions of people starved to death after eating all the animals, tree bark, and grass. The Archbishop of Canterbury said in 1921, "Never in the history of the world has a condition of things existed comparable to the ghastly death by famine of whole millions of men, women, and children."
It was also the greatest period of pestilence. In 1918 at least 12 million people died of the flu epidemic. It was more widespread than the black death of a former age, and this was considered to be without parallel in the history of disease. It was 5 times more deadly than war. The greatest earthquakes ever came after World War I. There is a long list of terrible quakes all over the world that killed many hundreds of thousands of people, and probably well over a million. In the light of these facts in his day, Bauman has this eloquent conclusion.
"Greatest war, greatest famine, greatest pestilence, greatest
earthquake-anyone of which should cause men to meditate
upon the way of God with men. And when all these can be
synchronized within the space of 10 years-1914 to 1923-
and a space of 20 years would include the last great Chinese
famine, then men who think, and especially those who think
in the light of divine revelation, will not dismiss it all with a
flippant sneer. I said-men who think! Most men don't
think. It is so much easier to sneer!
Weigh it well! Nearly 6,000 years have passed since God
placed Adam in Eden. And yet the 4 greatest plagues that
can afflict the human race were all packed recently in a
single decade! If that does not fulfill the sign that the Lord
Jesus gave an answer to the question "What shall be the
sign of Thy coming?" -Then, pray tell, just what is it going
to take to fulfill the words that "cannot be broken"?
This is a good question. If that decade did not fulfill the sign of the times, then what in this world can? The signs of our day are petty in comparison. Even if there are more earthquakes and more wars, they are not nearly as destructive. It is this reality that makes many question if Jesus intended us to even look at these things as signs of the end. We don't have the time to look at them, but I have the records of dozens of dates that have been set by godly men for the second coming of Christ. They are all based on what they felt were clear signs of the times. Some of them are sheer nonsense, and others seem quite convincing, but all of them are embarrassed by history, which made them false prophets.
Jesus says in verse 36, "No one knows about that day, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." Jesus emphasized that it is a mystery when He will return, and there is no way to know. In Mark 13:23 Jesus says to His disciples, "You do not know when that time will come." He goes on to say that its like a master of the house going on a trip and leaving his servants in charge. They have no idea when he will return, and so they need to stay alert. He says in verse 36, "If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you speaking. What I say to you I say to everyone: Watch!"
The point of signs smashers, and the thousands of Christian teachers who reject sign watching, is that it detracts from the focus of Jesus to watch for Him by getting people to watch for signs. Sign watchers are almost always pessimistic, and they draw their strength from crisis events like wars and earthquakes. This means that people get all excited when such signs are prevalent, but when they are over and life goes back to normal they settle down again into indifference to the second coming of Christ. Sign watchers rise and fall like the tide with daily events. This means it has to be dooms day before people will give heed to the second coming. The focus is not on Christ at all, but on signs, and this is futile, since Christ said nobody can know by signs when He will come.
This sort of thing lets God's people be manipulated by the so-called readers of the signs. Jesus said watch at all times, and not just in the bad times, and crisis times, but in the good times as well, for He said He could come at anytime. No one can read the signs and tell when He will come, for He can come anytime. In fact, Jesus said that when He does come it will be a surprise, like a thief in the night, and only those who are always watching will be ready. Those who go by signs will not be ready, for He may come when there are no such signs.
This is what is called the doctrine of the imminent coming. It simply means that Jesus can come at any time. He does not have to wait until some signs are first given before He comes. If we can know there are signs to precede His coming, then He cannot come until He first gives us these signs, and if that is the case, we can know He is not coming before we see the signs. Those who hold this view of the imminent coming say they do not look for signs, but for the Savior Himself, for He is not bound by any signs before He comes. If He is, then we have to focus on the signs that are to precede Him. Sign seekers make Christ secondary to the signs. They reject His right to come again like a thief in the night. He cannot do that and surprise us, for He has to wait until the signs are evident first. So they cannot honestly sing that Jesus may come today, for the signs are not yet fulfilled. For sign seekers His coming cannot be at any time. He must wait until after the signs.
John R. Rice is dogmatic in his view that Jesus can come at any time. He writes, "Now the intent of the Lord Jesus was that they should expect Him to come at any moment in their lifetime. He could have come before World War I, or World War II, or before the rise of communism, or before the Catholic papacy. Yes, Jesus could have come at any time since Pentecost is a clear teaching of the Bible. Jesus said, "Watch, for you know not the time."
If we take at face value the Bible doctrine about the second coming, that it is imminent, then we know He could have come at any time in the centuries past. We cannot go by signs. No signs are prophesied. There is no prophesied event. He may come at any moment, and when He does come, it will be unexpected because it cannot be foretold."
Because of the history of sign seekers and the discredit and disgrace they have brought on the church, I can sympathize with this position, but it goes to far. The disciples asked for a sign, and Jesus did not reject them. He warns them over and over to be cautious, but He does go on to deal with signs, and in verse 14 He gives a very specific sign of the end of the world. This leaves me in the middle. The sign seekers on one side, seen signs in every disaster and unusual event, and the sign smashers calling it all nonsense, and rejecting all sign as of value.
There are many of God's most brilliant and committed children on both sides of this issue, but each side goes to extremes. The third way is the wisest way, and as I see it that is to be a sign skeptic. Be very cautious, as Jesus warns, but don't throw out the baby with the bath water. Work at focusing on the signs that really are valid because Jesus says so, and forget the rest. This third way says both the sign seekers and sign smashers are right if they join forces to smash the nonsense of sign sensationalism, and hold to the signs to which Jesus clearly points.
There are very few authentic signs, and possibly only the one in 24:14 is a truly valid sign that can be measured with any degree of accuracy. But I agree that over enthusiasm even for this authentic sign is folly if it takes our eyes off Christ. We are to be looking for our Lord, and not for signs. Annie Johnson Flint put it in poetry:
It is not for a sign we are watching-
For wonders above and below,
The pouring of vials of judgment,
The sounding of trumpets of woe;
It is not for a Day we are looking,
Not even the time yet to be
When the earth shall be filled with God's glory
As the waters covers the sea;
It is not for a King we are longing
To make the world-kingdoms His own;
It is not for a Judge who shall summon
The nations of earth to His throne.
Not for these, though we know they are coming;
For they are but adjuncts of Him,
Before whom all glory is clouded,
Besides whom all splendor grows dim.
We wait for the Lord, our Beloved,
Our Comforter, Master, and Friend,
The substance of all we hoped for,
Beginning of faith, and its end;
We watch for our Savior and Bridegroom,
Who loved us and made us His own;
For Him we are looking and longing:
For Jesus, and Jesus alone.
This is not just poetry, it is Bible exposition, for the only use of the word sign that Jesus makes is in verse 30, which if you look at it you will see is Himself. The only thing we know for sure is that when we see Him that is the sign He has arrived. Be skeptical of all other signs, but be every ready for this one.