By Pastor Glenn Pease
A deaf but pious English lady visiting a country town in Scotland went to church with an ear trumpet. It was a new device then, and the elders of the church had never seen one, and they viewed it with great suspicion. After consultation one of them walked over to her and waging his finger at her warningly said, "One toot and ye're out." This, of course, was a warning that was unneeded.
Not so the warning a man received in New York. He was walking down fourth Ave. and stopped on a temporary bridge to watch some work being done on the subway. A worker told him to move on, for he was in danger of being hurt. He said he had a right to be on a public street, and he refused to move. A few moments later he was struck on the head by a piece of metal and was severely hurt. He sued for damages, and the courts decision is of real interest. The court agreed with him that he had a perfect right to stay where he was. However, since he was warned of the danger of doing so, it is presumed that he accepted the risk involved, and, therefore, could not collect damages. The contractor had no right to remove him by force, and so had fully done its duty when it gave warning. Here was a warning that was needed, but was unheeded, and so was of no effect in preventing what it was meant to prevent. To be forewarned is not to be forearmed if the warning is ignored.
In Scripture there are no warnings but those that are needed, and so we ought to make sure that we give heed to every one of them. Our study of I John has brought us to a warning concerning antichrist, or antichrists. John only mentions the anti-Christ, but his warning covers his numerous predecessors which he calls antichrists. The thing that impresses me about this passage is the fact that John is judging who these antichrists are, and he lays down a standard by which Christians of all time can judge the antichrists of their day. From a superficial point of view this would be contrary to the words of Christ that we judge not. These words of Christ are so often quoted and given such an absurd application that I wanted to call your attention to the fact that there are clear areas where they do not apply. This saying comes up all the time in conversations where the character and conduct of persons are being discussed. Even non-Christians quote it to throw up a smoke screen to avoid being examined.
Nothing can be more absurd than to suppose that Christ meant for us to suspend our critical and moral faculties, and refuse to determine the worthiness of any man's character and conduct. Such an application of the words of Christ would lead to the neglect of all the warnings of Scripture to beware of false prophets. It would make John's warning and advice both wrong and worthless. Not applying the truth of the Bible to life is a common problem, but to give it an absurd application is even worse. A boy said to his father, "Dad, did you go to Sunday School when you were a boy?" Dad said, "Why yes son I always went to Sunday School." The son replied, "Well then, I think then I'll quit, it isn't doing me any good either." Lack of application of what one learns leads to no good, but an absurd application of what one learns can lead to definite harm. Therefore, let us give heed to these words of warning by John, and recognize that some things we must judge. The first thing we must judge is-
THE SIGNS OF THE TIMES.
In 3:1 John says it is the last time, and we know it by the signs we see. All of the New Testament authors indicate that Christians will be able to know when the end is near, for there will be signs. In Matt. 24 the disciples asked Jesus what the sign of His coming will be, and of the end of the world. They assume there would be signs of the end of history. Jesus told them not to be alarmed at false messiahs, wars, and rumors of wars, nations rising against nations, famines, and earthquakes in various places, for all of these are to characterize all of history and not just the end. Many have perverted the clear words of Christ and quoted these things as signs of the end, but Jesus says they are only the beginning of sufferings. Jesus goes on to say there will be much tribulation for the church to go through, and there will be a great falling away, and many false prophets, but the church will still succeed in taking the Gospel to all nations, and then will come the end.
Paul later explains more concerning this falling away, and the man of lawlessness who will arise before the end. John, now later yet, adds some more details to the picture. He says to the Christians of his day that they have heard that antichrist would come. He does not say that he has come, but he says that there are so many antichrists already that it is a sign of nearing the end. We will consider the problem this raises in a moment. I want to pause here and draw a conclusion that I feel is inescapable and important for our whole understanding of the doctrine of last things. The Christian who studies the Word of God will be able to see signs of the approaching end of the world. Christians have made many false judgments, and given many erroneous applications of the signs of the end, but, nevertheless, the whole New Testament justifies us in believing we will be able to know when the end is near. To deny this and say we will have no idea is to make a large portion of the New Testament meaningless. Everything the New Testament says about signs is worthless if we cannot judge the signs of the times.
Now we must consider what seems to be an embarrassing problem arising out of John's dogmatic assertion that it was obvious 1900 years ago that it was the last hour of history. John had good reason to believe the end was near in his day, for except for the fact that the antichrist himself had not yet appeared, the other signs seemed to be almost fully fulfilled. The great falling away due to the Gnostic heresy seemed to fulfill Paul's first sign, and since the known world then was practically all reached with the Gospel, it would appear that Christ's major sign was also fulfilled. When John wrote at the end of the first century, it looked as if the last hour was at hand, for all that was left was for the man of sin to appear. Many, especially of those who are liberal, just say that John had good reason to believe it was the last hour, but it turned out he was wrong for antichrist did not appear.
Others say that John is referring to the fall of Jerusalem in 70A.D. and that it was the last hour for Judaism. This is highly improbable, for there is not the slightest hint that would lead the reader to get this meaning. If John meant this, he could not have done a better job of being obscure. If this were true, it would solve the problem, but not convincingly. Bengal, the conservative Greek scholar, solves the problem by an even less likely interpretation. He says John is referring to the last hour of his life. He was old and the end was near for him, and he knew it. It is hard to see any connection with the text in this interpretation. The fact of many antichrists is what caused John to know it was the last hour, and not his feeling that he was not long for this world.
The most obvious interpretation is to recognize that John is only speaking in the common Christian language of his day. Christians looked at time as being in 3 ages: The former age, the present evil age, and the age to come. The present age is the last age of history as we know it. It is an age that is passing away. The age to come has already broken into the present age, and runs parallel with it. We who know Christ already partake of the things to come such as eternal life. It has already begun, and we are rescued from the darkness of this present evil age and are made citizens of the kingdom of light. This concept leads the New Testament authors to refer to this age as the last. It does not mean it will end soon, but that it is passing away, and will give way completely to the age to come. For the Christian then, it is always in the last days.
The book of Hebrews begins by referring to the former days, when God spoke by prophets in various ways "but in these last days he has spoken to us by His Son." When Jesus came into history that was the beginning of the end. The last days began, and Peter at Pentecost said that what was taking place there was the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel that in the last days God would pour out his Spirit upon all flesh. The coming of the Holy Spirit was another sign of the last days. In other words, from the Jews point of view in the Old Testament there was only the present age and the age to come-the last age. That last age began with the coming of the Messiah to establish His kingdom. The present church age is the last age. God has no other plan. He has given His final and fullest revelation in His Son, and when these last days are over, eternity begins.
John was simply saying that we are seeing the signs clearer than ever that these are the last days, and the end is near. That history has gone on yet for nearly 2000 years does not show that John was in error. It only emphasizes the long suffering of God. John also wrote by God's inspiration the book of Revelation, and told of multitudes of things yet should happen in these last days before the end. The fact that John could sense the real possibility of the end being right around the corner explains why the book of Revelation can be interpreted in so many ways. It can be so interpreted to be nearly all fulfilled in the first century, as the preterists do, or as being fulfilled in every century, as the historicists do, or as being fulfilled at the literal last hour, as the futurists do.
The book of Revelation is obviously calculated to keep the church aware that the end is always near for every generation of Christians. John could sincerely believe that the last hour was near and be correct, for it always is, yet God can continue to be long suffering, and we can only go by the revealed signs in judging if the end is at hand. In a sense the apostolic age was a type of the history of the church to the end. All the signs were fulfilled on what they thought was a universal level. We know now it was not, but know now that the whole world is involved, and when we see the signs fulfilled again on a truly universal scale, we will know it is the last of the last days.
Let us be cautious in applying this truth, and not depart from Scripture principles, and start finding signs that are irrelevant. A poet has done a fine job in giving us a sense of the urgency that is to characterize us, but he misses completely the real signs of the end.
There are worries in the air, filling men with hope and fear;
There are signals everywhere that the end is drawing near,
There are warnings to prepare, for the King will soon be here.
Troublelous times are gathering around, the days of lawlessness
Mighty earthquakes shake the ground, war clouds rise in every
While there comes a solemn sound, we are near the end of time.
His conclusion is correct, but not his reasons for thinking so. Earthquakes and trouble have nothing to do with the signs of the end. The reaching of the whole world with the Gospel and the rise of anti-Christ are the signs we are to watch for.