The "Signs of the Times" (1)
So far our treatment of general eschatology, the Bible's teaching regarding the return of Christ and the events which precede and accompany His return, has been introductory in character. We have seen that the return of Christ is the great event on the horizon of the history of redemption; that it is an event that will bring this present age to a close; and that it is also an event whose time is unknown to us. Everything in the biblical picture concerning the future course of events focuses upon the person and work of Christ, the exalted Lord who has been seated at the Father's right hand "from whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead" (Apostles' Creed).
Now that we have established the centrality and primacy of Christ's return in the biblical view of the future, we are in a position to consider what are commonly termed the "signs of the times." In the present period of history, in this "time between the times" of Christ's first coming or advent and His second coming, there are a number of events and circumstances which have commonly come to be known as the "signs of the times." These signs are the events which mark off the present period of history as a period which is leading to Christ's return. They are like so many reminders or signposts that the end is coming and the day of the Lord is at hand.
What Are the "Signs of the Times"?
Despite the rather common use of the expression, "the signs of the times," there is only one place in the New Testament where it is found, and in this instance it refers to events which were then present and not future events! In Matthew 16:3 Christ refers to the "signs of the times" in an answer to a question put to him by the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Wanting to test Him, the Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus asking Him to show them a "sign from heaven" (v. 1). To this question and test, Jesus responded by saying, "Do you know how to discern the appearance of the sky, but cannot discern the signs of the times?"
Clearly in the context in which these words were first spoken, the "signs of the times" refers generally to the works of God in the past and the present which disclose His will and purpose. They are like the "signs" which are noted in Matthew 11:5 where we read of a number of signs which confirm that Jesus is the Christ of promise: "The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them." In this passage, however, there is no explicit use of the language of "signs" or "signs of the times."
Though we do not find the Scriptures commonly using the expression, "the signs of the times," to refer to events or historical occurrences that signify the nearness or certainty of Christ's return, this need not prevent our using it for this purpose. It is not difficult to understand how this expression has come to be commonly used for this purpose. Just as there were "signs" in the history of redemption in the Old Testament and New Testament eras that served to disclose and confirm God's purpose, there are also "signs" in this present age which serve to remind believers of the significance of the time in which we live, particularly in relation to the great event looming on the horizon, Christ's coming again.
Though it must be admitted, then, that the expression, "the signs of the times," is not used in the Scriptures in the way we will be using it, this need not prevent us from using this expression to describe all those events, occurrences, or portents revealed in the Word of God which precede and confirm that the present course of history is moving toward the day of the Lord. These signs are like so many indicators to the people of God, to those who walk by faith and not by sight and who have their eye fixed upon the return of their Lord, that Christ shall come as the Word promises. They are like so many reminders to the believing church that Christ, seated at the Father's right hand, ruling all things for the sake of His church, is bringing history to its appointed consummation.
Some Mistaken Views of These "Signs"
If we may use the expression "the signs of the times" to refer to those events revealed in the Scriptures which distinguish this present age in relation to the coming of Christ, there are several mistaken views of these "signs" that we need carefully to guard against. Not only is the phrase, the "signs of the times," a common one in Christian parlance, but it is also one which has attached to it many unbiblical notions about what will characterize history before Christ's return.
One such mistaken notion is the idea that the "signs of the times" refer exclusively to those events which will occur immediately prior to Christ's return. On the time-line of history, the "signs of the times" are understood often to be a cluster of events that will take place in a short period of time just before the end. This misunderstanding is often linked to the interest in dating the exact time of Christ's return. Since these signs are occurrences that will take place in the period just before the return of Christ, their presence permits or warrants the prediction that Christ's return is imminent.
The problem with this approach should be obvious. Not only does the Bible speak of the "signs of the times" to refer to events that lie in the past, but the Bible also speaks of a variety of signs, many of which span the whole period between Christ's ascension into heaven and coming again. Furthermore, some of the signs of the times that are mentioned in a passage like Matthew 24 (parallels in Mark 13 and Luke 21), a passage that is sometimes termed the "Olivet Discourse" or the "Little Apocalypse," are clearly events that have already taken place, having occurred at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. There is a rich diversity of signs which are mentioned in the Scriptures, a diversity that cannot be accommodated by the idea that these signs must all occur in the period shortly before the second coming of Christ.
Another mistaken notion, one which is closely linked with the first, maintains that the signs of the times enable us to date the exact time of Christ's return. In a popular view of the signs of the times, the tendency is to think of these signs as indicators of the imminence or "soon-ness" of Christ's return. So soon as believers detect one or more of these signs being present, whether it be in the form of wars or rumours of wars, or in the form of earthquakes and other portents, the conclusion is swiftly drawn that we must be living in the "last days" and that the return of Christ is drawing rapidly nearer.
This temptation, involves a misreading of biblical passages and prophecies having to do with the end times. Too often these passages are read as though they were "newspaper reports" on events in the future, written as though they were already in the past. The manner in which many of the prophecies of the Old Testament find their fulfillment in the New Testament should alert us to the danger of this approach to these passages. The signs of the times are not intended to enable us to establish an exact timetable for Christ's return, or to predict all kinds of developments in advance of their occurrence.
One other notion that often plagues our understanding of the signs of the times is the notion that these signs are always abnormal, catastrophic and spectacular kinds of events. When we think of the signs of the times, the tendency is often to think of those unusual circumstances that will characterize the period of history before Christ's return. Wars, rumours of wars, earthquakes, the anti-Christ, Armageddon — these are the kinds of events of which the signs of the times are made. However, it should be noted that the Bible in one passage expressly warns us against this kind of identification of these signs only with spectacular and unusual events. In Luke 17:20-21 Christ is reported to have said, "The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, Lo, here it is!' or 'There?' for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you." It should also not be forgotten that the Scriptures warn the believer that the "man of lawlessness" will deceive many with "pretended signs and wonders" (2 Thessalonians 2:9; compare Revelation 13:13-14). As we shall see many of the signs of the times refer to events that belong ordinarily and normally to this period of history, precisely as that period which prepares for and issues in the coming again of Christ from heaven.
Because these mistaken ideas are so often associated with the signs of the times, it is especially important that we exercise biblical caution as we approach the various signs mentioned in the Word of God. We must not think that, after considering these signs of the times, we will have discovered some grand scheme of spectacular events which will permit us to determine the exact course and timing of coming events before Christ's return.
Characteristics of These "Signs"
If there are a number of such common misunderstandings of the signs of the times, it is important to correct them by noting some of the common characteristics or features of these signs in the Bible. In the Scriptural teaching about the present period of history and the place of these signs of the times, certain characteristics of these signs stand out as especially important.
Ironically, though we often think of these signs as pointers to the future, many of the signs of the times in the New Testament refer as much to events in the past history of God's dealings with His people as they refer to the future. Many of the signs have their antecedents in the Old Testament. This is true, for example, of such signs as wars and rumours of wars, earthquakes, the battle of Armageddon, and false prophets. Many such occurrences marked the way of God's dealings with His people in the Old Covenant; many of them have already occurred in the past or are presently occurring. All of them call the people of God to constant vigilance and watchfulness, to a hope- filled anticipation of the future under the plan and purpose of God who has entrusted the administration of all things to His Son, our ascended Lord.
Though often referring to events in the near or distant past, as well as the present, it is nonetheless appropriate that these signs be associated in our minds with the future, especially the event of Christ's return. Whenever New Testament passages speak of various events that will take place during the course of history leading up to the end, these passages speak of these signs as indicators that the end is drawing near. They remind the believer that history is moving forward, toward an appointed goal, namely, the revelation of Christ from heaven at the end of the age.
Another feature often present in the biblical delineation of the signs of the times is the stress upon the antithesis in history between the kingdom of God and the powers of evil. As history moves forward under the lordship of Jesus Christ, the opposition between the kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of the anti-Christ becomes increasingly evident and the certain triumph of Christ's cause is foreshadowed.1
The signs of the times are, accordingly, so many indicators of the realization of God's redemptive purposes in history, purposes which include the gathering of the church and the proclamation of the gospel of the kingdom to the ends of the earth. Far from being so many frightening signs of the triumph of the anti-Christ and his forces, these signs testify to the triumph of Christ's cause and the subjection of all things under His feet. Just as in Revelation 12, the casting down of Satan from heaven to the earth issues in an intensified conflict between the church and the world, so these signs attest the intensification of the antithesis between the kingdom of darkness and the kingdom of light. But they do in such a way as to bespeak the sure triumph of the testimony of the gospel of Christ and the establishment of His kingdom in its fullness at His coming. Therefore, rather than being fearful signs of the uncertain prospect of Christ's cause, the signs of the times certify the inexorable march of the history of redemption toward its consummation at Christ's triumphant revelation from heaven.
Accordingly, the signs of the times serve as so many reminders to believer and unbeliever alike that today is the day of salvation, not tomorrow when it will have become too late and God's patience will have run its course. They call believers especially to a stance of constant watchfulness and expectation of the coming day of the Lord. As Christ said to His disciples in Matthew 24:42, in the context of an extended discourse on the signs of the times, "Watch, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming." Like the announcement of an impending marriage ceremony, these signs are a call to be prepared for the coming of the heavenly Bridegroom, Jesus Christ, who will receive His bride unto Himself and cast His enemies into everlasting destruction (2 Thessalonians 1:6-10).
These are the characteristics that the reader of the New Testament finds again and again, whenever the signs of the times are described. These signs serve to remind the believer that history serves God's redemptive purposes in Christ; that the end of history is drawing near; and that the victory of Christ's cause is assured. Unlike the popular view which regards these signs so often as a portent of evil things to come, these signs, even when evidencing opposition to the gospel, are a portent of Christ's triumph!
Identifying These "Signs"
It may be useful at this point to give a brief outline of the various signs of the times. To use categories from Anthony Hoekema's fine study, The Bible and the Future, these signs can be distinguished into three kinds:
- first, signs that reveal the present working and eventual triumph of the preaching of the gospel in this present age, signs "evidencing the grace of God";
- second, signs that reveal the intensifying conflict between the kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of the anti-Christ, a conflict that will issue in the ultimate triumph of Christ and subjection of all things under His feet; and
- third, signs that reveal God's judgment and anticipate the great crisis or judgment that will occur at Christ's return.
For the benefit of providing a clear picture, the following outline will serve to indicate the sequence of signs:
- Signs of the present working and triumph of God's grace:
- The preaching of the gospel;
- The salvation of "all Israel";
- Signs of the conflict between Christ and anti-Christ:
- The Great Tribulation;
- The Anti-Christ;
- Signs of God's judgment anticipating the great judgment:
- Wars and rumours of wars;
- Famine and earthquakes;
- The battle of Armageddon.
This listing of the major categories of signs and the particular signs that fit within them, illustrates how prominent an aspect of the Bible's teaching about the future the subject of the "signs of the times" is. Though, as we shall see, there are many difficulties and questions that arise in the context of an attempt to understanding their meaning, the importance of these signs only confirms our earlier conclusions. Nothing in the present course of history may be divorced from the great purpose of bringing all things into subjection to Christ, inaugurating and eventually consummating His glorious kingdom.