As Christian churches across the globe prepare for the celebration of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus this coming Easter Sunday, our hearts are mixed with both celebration and with grievous emotions as we receive a fresh reminder again this Palm Sunday of the spiritual climate of the world at large. For those who may have missed the news cycle this week, 44 Christians were killed on Sunday by Islamic State suicide bombers while attending worship services in two Egyptian churches. The horror that such an atrocious act must bring to the Christian community in Egypt and the families of those who were murdered is unimaginable to many of us in the Western world. In spite of this atrocity, and others like it which are becoming more familiar to us each passing week, the scriptures point to these things as signs of the times. As western awareness grows of the persecution that our brothers in Christ regularly face in other parts of the world, so should our awareness of the day and hour in which we live, lest we too be deceived and fail to discern the times as those who perished in the days of Noah.
The original Disciples of the Lord Jesus were privileged to receive a private lesson in the last days from the Lord Himself in a communique known succinctly as the Olivet Discourse. These general signposts from our Lord in Matthew 24 help us, even as modern day believers, to recognize the threshold of the door leading to the beginning of Daniel’s 70th week. Two specific questions were addressed by the Lord; a when and a what question about the last days. In response, the Lord indicated that the timing of His return would be sudden…like a flash of lightning across the sky. The timing of that day would be similar to the the days of Noah in that people were going about their lives in the usual manner, busy with their daily activities, their work, and their immediate plans and agendas. In such a time, the Lord is coming, and His Disciples must be readily watching for His return. Thankfully, though no man knows the day and hour of the Lord’s certain return, the Lord has shared with us in Mt 24 eight signs of the times so that we would be able to discern the nearing Day of the Lord and not live unaware.
Sign # 1: The rise of false religion. As the last days draw near, there will be a rise of false religion and false messiahs (Mt 24:5). Jesus characterized the last days as a time when people would move away from the truth of following the one true God, into the deceptive errors of false religions and false messiahs. Jesus issued a clear and present warning that believers should not be deceived by false religion and by false messiahs, because many will come in the name of the Lord and will deceive many. For this reason, it is necessary that believers know their Bibles, and that there be a continued emphasis on teaching sound doctrine to the saints. This may manifest itself in the rise of the cults, or even the rise of false religions such as Islam. If there ever was a time when a renewal of the systematic study of the scriptures was needed in our culture, and when a Jesus revival was needed in our hearts, it is now! Watch for the rise of false religion and false leaders as an indicator of the nearness of Christ.
Sign # 2: An increase in global conflict. Similarly, Jesus noted that as we near the last days, that there will be an increase of war, global conflict, and rumors about such wars and conflicts (Mt 24:6-7). It is interesting to think about the vast difference in perspective between how the original recipients of this teaching must have thought about war and the rise of nations, versus the modern audience. In their day, they thought in terms of swords, spears, and chariots, and in our day we think in terms of aircraft carriers, cruise missiles, military drones, and fighter jets. Like no other time in history, we have the ability to know what rumors of war are raging across the sea. Just this week, the US military launched a large number of cruise missiles into Syria, and within minutes, our televisions were interrupted with the breaking news reports. The instantaneous communication that affords us today, and the global perspective that has emerged in the past thirty years is remarkable. Believers now read the latest developments on news servers located in the actual areas of global conflict from the comfort of our laptop computers and smartphones, only to debate over coffee thousands of miles away if the Russian and Turkish interest in Syria, or the Chinese interest from the east, have the makings of a staging event for the Gog/Magog invasion of Ezekiel 38-39. Rest easy friends, as these things do not signal the end, but are a sign of the beginning of sorrows. Be watching for the rise of global conflict.
Sign #3: Unusual weather phenomenon. Jesus indicated that as the last days approach, that there will be an increase in unusual weather phenomenon (Mt 24:7). Specifically, Jesus named earthquakes, famines, and pestilences as indicative of the last days threshold. Climate change and the environment certainly have been topics of interest for special interest groups and politicians in the past few election cycles. Numbers of people would agree that strange things are happening now in the weather cycle, even if they disagree on the cause and the level of concern that we should have over it. Often in the scriptures, a list of items such as these given by Jesus will be given that is to be interpreted as less exhaustive and more suggestive of the kinds of things that that will occur. If that is the case with this text, then tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, and melting polar ice caps could just as easily top the list. Whatever interpretation a person takes on the actual list, the principal stands that the last days will be ushered in by an increase in unusual weather phenomenon. We should keep a watch on the weather and take note of the unusual as a sign of the times.
Sign #4: The tribulation and persecution of the Saints. Even before the beginning of the 70th week of Daniel, the Lord taught His Disciples that there would be tribulation and persecution for those who followed Him…and so all believers live with the reality that even if life is peaceful at the present time, that the days are coming when it may be much more difficult to live in our society and to be a Christ follower (Mt 24:9). Around the world however, as evidenced in Egypt this week, believers live with the constant threat of persecution and terror. In parts of the world under Islamic jihadist control, persecution brings the unbearable realities of pastoral beheadings as congregations helplessly watch, the severe abuse and torture of Christian families, displacement of believers from their homes and communities, threats of violence, and even human slavery and sex trafficking of Christian women and children. Following Jesus is a calling, and one that as we near the final days, will come with its own real challenges for each of us. The hatred of Believers by the nations is to be expected, because the Word of the Lord is sure. Expect persecution of the church to increase.
Sign # 5: Christianity becomes an offense: In the west a shift has occurred. In former times, morals were viewed in terms of absolutes based upon the revelation of a creator, but the rise of humanism and postmodernity have challenged moral absolutes. The cultural viewpoint of many today is that morality is defined by what is accepted as normative by a community or a individual, and not necessarily by a higher authority such as God. As a result, the guiding principles for whether or not a particular behavior is accepted today in the west is a cultural view at best, and absolutely not a scriptural one. The result is that for Christians who believe the Bible to be the authority and standard in all matters of faith and practice, there is an ever increasing divide between what the culture accepts as good and right, and what is taught in the Christian scriptures. Foreseeing this, Jesus warned that the time would come when the worldview of the Christian would be an offense to the culture, which would lead to an increasing hatred and betrayal of Bible believing Christians (Mt 24:9). In light of this, believers should expect that the last days will bring the acceptance and embrace of behaviors that directly conflict with what the Lord says is good. As in the days of Isaiah, there will be those who call good evil, and evil good. Christians need to be anchored in the truth of God’s Word in these last days just to endure. Let us not forget that the world is watching, but so is the Lord. Expect the world to be offended by our assertions of moral and ethical absolutes based upon the revelation of the person of God.
Sign # 6: The rise of false prophets. Jesus also warned that there would be a rise of false prophets as the last days neared that would deceive many (Mt 24:11). As the language suggests, their message is false, but we know that every good lie contains an element of truth. As prophets, they will speak for the Lord…preachers and perhaps even church leaders, but their message will not adhere to sound Biblical doctrine. Look for false teachers as the last days dawn that substitute the teaching of the Bible with self help, pop psychology, and motivational speaking, and do not be surprised if they are revealed within the Christian church. Be on alert the rise of teaching that is touted as “relevant” for today, that is absent of Biblical content, and that has a motivational feel good appeal. Biblical teaching may grow passe in some circles, and the message will sound as though it should be true yet without the authority of the Word of God as its support. Expect a rise of those who would water down, or withdraw from teaching God’s Word.
Sign # 7: Lawlessness in abundance. By its very nature, law seeks to govern man by subjecting him to the authority vested in the law, and the authority of any law is rooted in external authorities and not in the individual self. Whether civil law, religious law, or a community collective, law creates a standard and authority over those who are governed by it. Lawlessness then, as described by Jesus, would seemingly indicate an era where people reject the authorities that have traditionally governed them and instead, seek to do what seems right in his own eyes. Lawlessness is a form of high rebellion that naturally extends from the humanistic worldview, and the idea that man is his own god. When men no longer believe that they must answer to Almighty God, then they naturally reduce the authority rightfully belonging to the Almighty to rest upon the individual conscience, which manifest itself in three attitudes. First, such lawlessness rejects the idea that anyone else has the moral right to judge anyone else. Secondly, such lawlessness opens Pandora’s proverbial box to unleash all sorts of behaviors previously unacceptable under an authoritative law. Finally, such lawlessness leads to the abolishment of any lawful absolutes and embraces the paradox that right and wrong become relevant to situations, cultures, and circumstances, but without absolutes. Look for an increase in lawlessness as the last days draw near (Mt 24:12).
Sign # 8: Love will grow cold. As the last days draw near, the Lord Jesus indicated that there would be a noticeable cooling of the hearts of men (Mt 24:12), yet we should note that it will not be a universal cooling. Jesus certainly did not suggest that there would not be any love left in the world, and we would hope above all hopes that the church at least would be rooted indeed in the love of God; that Christ’s love would compel us to love one another. Jesus did suggest that there would be a general cooling though in the world, and that it would be noticeable as a result of the lawlessness that will also come. It would seem that as people move towards absolute self governance and the rejection of external authorities, that a general self centeredness will also follow. This will likely manifest itself in a strong “me” centered culture that moves in the opposite direction from the Christian ideals of serving others, acting in humility, considering others as greater than ourselves, and similar principles that reflect love for others.
When Jesus finished speaking these things to the Disciples, He admonished them to be watchful. No one knows the day or the hour of the Lord’s near return, and date setting is a foolish venture. Nonetheless, as we see these eight signs of the times become a reality before our eyes, let us discern the near hour of the Lord’s return and be found as the virgins awaiting their bridegroom, and as the servant investing the talents of his soon returning master. Jesus is soon to return, and as His people, let us not be caught unaware, but be discerning in the Spirit of the times that are being unfolded before us. Further, let us always say in our hearts and also with our lips, come Jesus come!