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!
A few years ago, God revealed this particular application to me and I am glad to share it with you at this time, because everyone deals with attacks, criticism, and spiritual warfare.
First things first, let’s acknowledge the admonition in verses 10 and 11 to be strong in the Lord and put on God’s armor, so that we can withstand the schemes of the Devil. Christians need to be prepared for spiritual attack, and we do that by wearing the armor of God each day. We never know when the attack will come, but we do know that the enemy is scheming…plotting for an attack position and strategy. When he thinks the time is right…when we are vulnerable, the enemy will attack. We must be ready for this! Verse 18 reminds us to pray, and to watch out for attacks…to be alert!
Next, Paul teaches us that our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual forces of darkness (V.12). Many scholars believe that Paul details some rank and file of demonic order in verse 13, while others believe that this verse speaks of both human forces and demonic forces. Whatever interpretation you choose, Paul’s point is clear that our battle is a spiritual one and is not against flesh and blood. I believe that Paul reminded Timothy, the young pastor of the Ephesian church, that our battle was not against flesh and blood because so often spiritual attack manifests itself through a flesh and blood source. As I think back over my life and reflect upon moments of spiritual attack, almost every attack has come through flesh and blood. I believe that Paul is helping us to see that even when an attack comes through a person, that believers need to see the spiritual source underneath the physical attack, and not be deceived by the smoke screen of the flesh and blood delivery agent of a demonic attack.
What follows this admonition is a set of principles couched in a battle dress illustration that helps us to stand firm against spiritual attack. Too often, we get distracted by the illustration when we should be understanding the principles. First, Paul extolls us to “gird our loins with truth (V.14). When an attack comes, we should ask the question…is this attack, criticism, scathing rebuke, etc…true or false? If we determine that the rebuke is true, then we should hug our brother’s neck and be thankful that God has used him to increase our walk in truth. However, if we consider the criticisms and determine that they are simply not true, then we should consider ourselves to be under spiritual attack.
Next Paul prescribes the breastplate of righteousness. Righteousness is simply living in a right position before God and man. If we listen to our critics and do what they want us to do, would that action put us in a more righteous position before God or our fellow man, or lead us into unrighteousness? If I took my critic’s advice, would it cause me to sin? Any exhortation from a critic or otherwise that would encourage your deluge into unrighteousness should be interpreted as spiritual attack.
Verse 15 encourages us to have “feet shod with the gospel of peace.” Ask this of your critical scathing rebuker…would listening to this rebuke or yielding to this criticism more greatly advance or retard the spread of the gospel message on the earth? If your critic’s admonition would lead to a reduction in gospel propagation, then you are certainly under spiritual attack.
The shield of faith in verse 16 refers to our strength in the Lord, His calling upon our lives, and our resolve to keep at the tasks of God set before us. Sometimes criticisms and rebukes discourage us so that we second guess our callings, think about quitting from the accompanying hurts, or become so discouraged that we think about leaving our ministries altogether. If the words of our critics cause us to doubt God’s call upon us or consider wavering in any way from the works of faith that God has set before us, then we are under spiritual attack. Paul noted that the shield of faith extinguishes the fiery arrows of the enemy. It is our faith in God, our belonging to Him, and His call upon us that keeps us going in times of attack.
Verse 17 instructs us to wear the helmet of salvation. Sometimes criticism and rebukes cause us to question and doubt even our own salvation…”if I were really saved I would have known these things…” People can belittle us to the point that feel an inch tall at best. In these moments, the enemy often causes us to question the basic principle of salvation. I am convinced that the enemy has some believers stuck on this issue…constantly doubting their salvation. When Satan gets a believer stuck at salvation, decades can go by without Christian growth and maturity since all the attention dwells on the uncertainty of salvation. Satan would desire each of you to doubt your salvation consistently.
Finally, Paul mentions the sword of the spirit which is the Word of God. If you listen to the advice of critics or respond with change to your rebukers, would it make you more or less obedient to the teachings of the Bible? Any attack that attempts to persuade you away from Biblical truth is a spiritual attack.
Taking all of this together, let’s look at God’s plan for believers as revealed to us by Paul. God desires that you be a person of truth, who lives righteously before God, working towards the global advancement of the gospel, firmly rooted in our faith and actively working the works of faith, assured and confident of your salvation, and obedient to the Word of God. Conversely, Satan’s desire for you is that you live in falsehood and error, become a person of unrighteousness and disobedience to God, withdraw from participation in gospel propagation, doubt your faith so that you lack confidence to work in faith, consistently question your salvific relationship with God, and discount or disbelieve the Bible leading to its devaluation in your life.
As you can see, spiritual attack has your complete spiritual destruction as its goal, is engineered by Satan and demons, and most frequently comes through other people. Fortunately, because of the manifest grace of God in us, we are not without victory…so long as we are dressed in the armor of God and wise enough to recognize attack when it comes.
In a recent sermon, I quoted Christian leadership guru John Maxwell, who admonished us regarding the way to success as a Christian to, “trade your work for God for a walk with God.” Chances are that I am not the only Christian who has struggled with this very principle through the years. It is so easy to busy ourselves into oblivion that, without even realizing it has happened to us, we find ourselves in a void and dry place spiritually. In that moment we realize that while we have accomplished works for the Kingdom, while we have loved God with zeal and passion, while our intentions were absolutely correct, noble, and just, that we have missed the main thing. An old friend that I grew up with used to say, “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” This silly statement is easy to remember, and true. Someone else has said, and I agree, that one of the primary tactics that Satan is using against the church today is to encourage such busyness in life that we are unable to devote the kind of time to our walk with God that is necessary for spiritual growth and health. For many of us, the workday starts sooner, or lasts longer. For others, the children we love are involved in more and more extra curricular activities. These days, many adults are more socially involved after work in small communities of friends. And then, there is the big time thief, the one that Zig Ziglar called the “great income inhibitor”…the television, to which I would also add potential, motivation, and creativity. It is easier today than ever to vegetate in front of the TV box, giving hours of the evening to the latest sitcom, but not “finding any time” for our walk with God. How important is a walk with God anyway to a Christian’s health and spiritual growth? Years ago while working as a youth minister in my seminary church, I used to tell the young people that a Christian’s spiritual life could be compared to any appliance…a toaster for example. The toaster does not cease to be a toaster when unplugged from the wall, but it cannot do what it was designed to do without being plugged in to its power source. It is a useless hunk of metal without power. So it is with a Christian. The scriptures are clear that the Holy Spirit’s filling is the power for us to grow and serve (Acts 1:8-9), and we know that the filling of the Spirit comes through the word of God. So, when a Christian neglects the spiritual disciplines…the most important of which are Bible devotions and prayer…the communication disciplines, we are like a toaster that is not plugged in. We do not cease to be Christian of course, but the power is missing…the heat is missing…and instead of performing what we were created to perform, we sit lifeless, powerless, and dead. So, with this in mind, would you make sure that you are plugged in? Would you tap into your power source today, this week, this month, and beyond? Remember, we cannot expect supernatural results in our lives through natural efforts. Supernatural results demand supernatural power…the power of God at work in us. Get plugged in!
On the day when we stand before the gates of Heaven seeking entry to the glorious paradise that God is preparing for us, there will not be issued to us a pop quiz to determine if we knew the right information about Christ as a requirement for entry. For some years as a practicing personal and preaching evangelist, I followed the information approach…there are several things that you need to “know” to get to heaven, etc. The information was factual: man is a sinner, man needs a savior, Jesus died for sins and rose in victory, and man must believe upon the Lord to be saved. The breakdown in my mind came from a misunderstanding of what the Bible means when we are called to “believe.” In our English understanding, to believe does indeed mean that we have a factual understanding of factual events, persons, and activities. In this sense of the word, I was convinced of my salvation because I “believed” the right facts about the person, life, ministry of reconciliation, and resurrection of Jesus…in the same way that I believe pizza is made from dough, sauce, and cheese. In recent years though, I have come to accept the fallacy of such a methodology, which appeals to the methodological intellect, but does not necessarily stir the heart to faith.
In the original language of the Bible, the term “believe” is actually the Greek Pisteuo, which goes far beyond the mere intellectual facts about Jesus, and requires that we have complete faith, trust, and hope in the Lord Jesus. This means that information alone is still insufficient for salvation, for one can have the proper information and “believe” it intellectually, but still not be trusting, hoping, and living out faith in who and what Jesus did. So the idea of knowing the right answers to the pop quiz seems, to me, grossly insufficient as I understand the salvific requirements about salvation, and not only that, but also seems highly deceptive as the intellectual approach is often a declarative moment of salvation for those who are indeed still in their lostness.
Biblical salvation is not an intellectual understanding of facts about Christ, followed by a man made prayer of assurance (*the sinner’s prayer is not an established Biblical salvific tenet). Rather, Biblical salvation is a decision of the individual to place the trust of one’s soul in the completeness of Christ’s sufficiency. Christ’s atonement was completely sufficient to pay for our sin debt in full, and Biblical salvation is more than information, but a life choice to trust, have absolute faith in, and glory in the hope of redemption through Christ’s all sufficient work of redemption at the cross. Therefore, we do not depend upon man at all in salvation…that I believed, I said a prayer, I was Baptized, I joined the church…but we determine to trust in the all sufficient atonement of the cross of Jesus Christ, who paid our sin debt in full and offers grace freely to all who trust Him by faith. This may sound like a game of semantics, but it isn’t at all! To know about God and to know God are two very different things. Facts understood is not the same as a relationship begun. Consider this closing example: I know lots of facts about the President. I know that he is a Democrat, that he has a beautiful and loving family, that he was a community organizer, that he attended college, and so forth. I even know what values and policies are important to him. However, knowing all of this about the President (facts) does not mean that I know the President (personal relationship). Indeed, a person can know much about Jesus Christ…even believing in the validity of the information that they believe…but that is not the equivalent of having made a life decision to agree with God about our sins, and to trust in the sufficiency of Christ to save us from sins. The real gospel is to repent of our sins, and to trust fully in the work of Christ in the crucifixion and resurrection, having complete faith, hope, and trust in Christ alone to save. God does not ask us to simply memorize a set of facts, but rather, to live a life of faith, hope, and trust in Christ.
Much to my chagrin, I drive an old car…eighteen years old to be exact. The car has old car issues, but runs good and faithfully gets me from A to B with only the sort of occasional routine maintenance repairs that you would expect on any car. Let me emphasize again…this is a good car. Nonetheless though, in recent years I have entertained the thought of replacing the old jalopy with a newer model, but have yet to do so due to economic restraints. So, a few weeks ago, I did the next best thing to buying a new car. I had heard a while back that the new car smell of a new car is a chemical perfume that is added to the vehicle post production, and sure enough, the auto parts store had a car scent called “new car scent.” Having paid for the new car smell, I sprayed that stuff all over my old car…and amazingly, it smelled brand spanking new. I was ecstatic! The next morning though when I got in the car, I noticed that the new car smell had been replaced with a definite undesirable funky smell. So, I sprayed more of the new car scent. Day after day, the new car scent was replaced with a funky stench that made the old car even worse than it was before I had sprayed the new car scent. I began to wonder if the car perfume people added an additional smell of funkiness that slowly overtook the new car smell…just so you would use more car perfume and purchase more of their product to cover up the funky smell. Bottom line…if I want that new car smell without the funkiness of the after stench, I’ll have to keep going back to the perfume people for more of their product. The alternative, of course, is to cease and desist use of the new car scent, and leave the windows of the car open long enough to air out the after stench. On one hand, the new car scent brings pleasure on the front end, but is nauseating on the back end. Airing out the car and throwing the rest of the perfume bottle in the garbage would be the best bet, but by now I am in the habit of using it. Maybe you have figured out by now that this post isn’t really about car scent, but about sin. Our sin is just like the new car scent I have just described; it can bring an initial sensation of pleasure that quickly turns to an unpleasant stench. The only way to get rid of the stench of sin is to throw it away and open the windows of your life to let the Lord clean it all out. So before you pick up the spray bottle again today, ask yourself if the new car smell is worth the funky stench that is sure to follow.