Watching For the Signs of the Times (Part One)
Passage: Matthew 24:3–24:8
Watching for the Signs of the Times Part One
We're in a series on the last days entitled "Watch". It is so entitled because Jesus tells his disciples that no one knows the day or hour of his return, but that it would be sudden and unexpected, and therefore we are to watch. Not make predictions, not get flaky, not quit your jobs, but watch. Be vigilant, be ready.
It is clear in reading the New Testament that the early church was watching. They lived with a dynamic sense of expectation that "Jesus could return any moment" and that same dynamic sense of expectation should mark the church today and in every generation. I said last week that there is room for disagreement in the church on matters of eschatology (study of last things) and that it is not primary like the gospel. We should know what we believe but hold onto it loosely and not dogmatically. But one thing we don't hold onto loosely is the confidence that Jesus is physically coming back to earth in power and glory.
This morning we are going to begin to look at the signs of the last days. Jesus rebuked the religious leaders of the day because they knew how to interpret the sky to predict approaching weather but they didn't know how to interpret the signs of the times. They could see what was happening, but because their hearts were spiritually hardened they couldn't interpret what was happening in order to see the bigger picture of what God was doing.
On Dec. 26, 2004 on a beach in Phuket, Thailand, beachgoers were fascinated by the strange way that the tide rushed out and the water seem to boil. But one ten year old girl named Tilly Smith who was on vacation with her parents recognized the warning signs of a tsunami and was able to alert enough people to get the beach evacuated. Minutes later the devastating tsunami crashed into the beach but no one was killed because they had been warned. They all saw the signs, but a ten year old girl knew how to interpret the signs to understand what they meant.
The Bible gives specific signs of the last days - signs that indicate something massive is coming - the end is near, the return of Christ is near. Let's look together at some of them beginning in...
I realize that many of us here may not be familiar with what the Bible teaches about the last days. To be honest the whole idea of the end of the world might seem slightly strange. Maybe up until now you thought that the only people who believed that stuff were guys with shaved heads walking up and down NYC streets wearing sandwich boards that read "the end of the world is near". Seems strange, and as Matt said last week, a bit farfetched. Unbelievable. It is our perspective, not the Bible, that we should be suspicious of. Our perspective of history is very limited and for the most part, very centered in ourselves and what we've experienced. We don't want to shape our worldview based on our experiences but on the broad truths of the Bible.
The Bible teaches that history is not random nor is it endless. It had a beginning - and it will have an end. History is a story. Story of God creating man in His image, but man listening to a fallen angel named the devil who wanted to be God, and deciding that he too, wanted to be God, and ever since man's history has been the history of rebellion against God and enthroning ourselves as God instead.
But Satan is a lousy god, and man makes a pretty lousy god too, and that is why human history is full of brokenness and death, despair and wars and murder and abuse and slavery and suicide and betrayal and unfaithfulness in marriage and corrupt politicians and evil dictators and...well, you get the idea. Human history tells the sad story of man's satanically inspired desire to be our own gods and kings and the barrenness that has produced.
But the Bible tells the story of another thread that runs through human history: the thread of God's redemptive work on behalf of sinful man. God has not left man to his own ruin and self-rule. He sent His Son - the rightful and good king - to the earth. But the King of heaven didn't come to take up his throne, make decrees, and rule over the world.
Instead He came as a different kind of King - a king who would lay down his life to save His subjects. A King who would die for the very ones who hated him and rejected His rule over their lives in order to make it possible for them to become his loyal, loving subjects. This King didn't mount up on His throne, He mounted up on the cross - to die for the sins of all who would trust and follow Him.
On the third day Jesus rose from the dead and ascended on high where He rules and reigns as King of heaven. And one day He is coming back, not as the lamb of God, but as the Lion of Judah - with King of Kings and Lord of Lords written on His side.
That day is coming. We don't know when. May be in our lifetime, may not be. What we know is this: we are to watch and be ready. And so we watch the signs in order to interpret the signs of the times. What do they tell us about God's activity in the world? What do they tell us about what's coming?
Let's jump right into the first signs we're going to look at today. Break signs into three categories:
1. Signs evidencing the grace of God toward men
2. Signs indicating man's sinful opposition to God
3. Signs indicating the judgment of God on sinful men
I need to say something before we look at these specific signs: none of these signs are unique to the period we are calling the last days. In fact, the New Testament calls the time from the birth of Christ to the return of Christ "the last days". We are in the last days whether Jesus returns in our lifetime or not.
As the end of the world draws near, the intensity of these signs will increase, like a woman giving birth has birth pangs that get more and more intense as the moment of birth draws near. The signs aren't unique - it's the increasing intensity that will be unique as the end gets near.
1. Signs evidencing the grace of God toward men
This gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations and then the end will come. (vs. 14)
A lot of times when we think of the "last days" we tend to think of bad, bad, times. Yeah, definitely bad times, but there is also amazing grace being poured out too. God is going to use the last days to bring an incredible harvest of souls to eternal life through faith in His Son, Jesus Christ.
The gospel will be proclaimed throughout the whole world - it will be a testimony to all nations. A testimony of God's gracious desire to see people saved from every tribe and nation and ethnicity. A testimony that there is another kingdom and another King - a good King - and when we surrender our lives to Him in faith and trust He welcomes us into His kingdom and we find He has paid our entrance fee by paying for all our sin on the cross.
This has been going on since the inception of the church - but it's going to get more intense as the Lord's return draws near. There is going to be an incredible ingathering of souls into the kingdom of God. To paraphrase Dickens, it will be the worst of times, but it will also be the best of times!
We can't forget that the church has a God-given mission to proclaim the gospel right up till we see the whites of Jesus' eyes! When Jesus gave the church the great commission in Matthew 28 there is a reason he links the making of disciples to his promise that he will be with them always even to the end of the age because that is how long the Great Commission is to last - right up to the end of the age! The last days will be a day that evidences God's great grace to the lost.
2. Signs indicating man's sinful opposition to God
For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. 22And if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short. Matthew 24:21-22
The last days will be the worst days this world has ever seen. It will be so bad Jesus said that no one would survive at all if those days were not cut short by his return, but for the sake of the elect (the people of God) those days will be shortened.
Before we look at the specific signs of the tribulation, this promise by Jesus to return for the sake of the elect raises an interesting question: The popular teaching of predispensationalists and central to the premise in the Left Behind book series is that there will be a secret rapture of the church just before the tribulation begins which will remove all Christians from the earth just before the tribulation. If that's what happens, it's okay with me! But I think the biblical evidence for a pretribulation rapture as depicted in Left Behind is unconvincing. We will consider the question of the rapture and when it occurs in more detail next week.
During this time of great tribulation there will be
¨ Wars and rumors of war (vs 6)
¨ A great apostasy (falling away) in the church (vs. 10-13). Many who call themselves Christians will fall away from the faith - deceived or losing faith or hearts growing cold.
Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons... 1 Tim. 4:1 (ESV)
For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. 2 Tim. 4:3-4 (ESV)
The last days will be characterized by people who have no interest in sound doctrine - they will gather around them teachings that tickle their itching ears - say what they want to hear - rather than being seekers of the truth wherever it leads them.
Many will fall away. Those who are casual professors of faith in Christ will fall away. Fair weather Christians will leave because it will be very stormy time for Christians. Whole churches and denominations will abandon orthodox Christian teaching for apostate teachings that play well in the culture.
¨ False Christs - men able to perform signs and wonders with such authenticity that even the elect would be deceived, if that were possible. Only God's holding power and Spirit-led discernment will spare the elect from following these supernatural wonders. (24)
¨ And there will be an ultimate "false Christ" figure called the antichrist or the beast. He will be the embodiment of Satan's rule over a man - filled with Satan more fully than any other man who has ever lived he will be militarily undefeatable, a blasphemer of God, and will make war with the saints. It is impossible to imagine the devastation the antichrist will wreak on the earth.
Over the years many have tried to identify the antichrist. Early Christians thought that Nero might be the antichrist. More recently many thought that Hitler or Stalin might be the antichrist.
If it seems farfetched to you to think of such an evil man rising to such unprecedented power, I want to help us get some perspective. While the Bible says there is one ultimate antichrist it also says that there are many lesser antichrists - those who are operating in the same spirit.
Can you imagine how Christians felt as they saw millions of Jews and Christians suffering in concentration camps and lining up for the showers only to be gassed to death and burned in ovens. It was said that when Hitler spoke there was a hypnotic power that came over huge crowds, and I heard one person say that it felt as if he was looking at you personally and many in the crowd felt that way. There was a power that seemed supernatural to his speeches. I think there was. Can you imagine how Christians felt as they watched this unfold? Actually you probably can't really imagine and neither can I - that's the point. But it happened just over 65 years ago. To laugh at the idea or to consider it farfetched is to forget recent history. Hitler was an antichrist but not the antichrist. The antichrist will be much, much worse.
¨ The gospel going out to all the world
¨ Wars and rumors of war
¨ A great apostasy in the church
¨ False prophets
¨ An antichrist figure
Not unique, but has been going on from the beginning of the Church. It's the intensity that will build, like a woman having birth pangs that intensify. Another way to picture it is like a tide that comes in and then goes out, but each time it comes it rises a little higher up the coast.
There have been wars and false christs and apostasy and antichrists - but then they recede away and things seem to return to normal. We're in such a time now. But the tide will come in again and bring another figure with it and it may well rise higher than the last one (be worse). That's why we never really know when we're in the final hours of history. It may seem like it but we can't be certain.
So Jesus says "watch". But what does it mean to watch? Ten year old Tilly saw the signs of a tsunami, and sounded the alert, but it wasn't the direction of the tsunami that they ran. They ran to higher ground. We want to run to higher ground where there is safety from the tsunami of tribulation that's coming. That higher ground is Jesus. After telling us all these signs, Jesus doesn't have us watching for these signs, he has us watching for his return.
So also, when you see all these things (all the devastating signs of the end), you know that he is near, at the very gates. (vs. 33)
When these things happen we are to lift our heads and look up for our redemption draws near. Luke 21:28.
This is not a depressing message or a message of doom and gloom. For the Christian it should result in a rising excitement - Jesus is coming back! Lift up your heads! Lift up your eyes!
And if you're not yet a Christian, hear the warning. There is a tsunami coming - but there is higher ground and that is Jesus Christ. He can save you for all eternity if you will call on him and trust and follow him.
More in Watch
July 26, 2009Watching For the New Heaven and New Earth
July 19, 2009What In the World Is Going To Happen At the End of the World?
July 12, 2009Watching For the Second Coming of Christ