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Do the world's catastrophes and problems indicate the imminance of the Lord's return? Are these 'Signs of the Times'?
The moment I opened the front door and saw the two men who stood before me, I knew who and what they were, as surely as if they had their identity branded on their foreheads. They were 'servants' of the "Watchtower Organization", that religious body which, in 1931, became guilty of the offence of 'Identity Theft' when it took upon itself the name that God had used to described His (unfaithful) ancient people, Israel (Isa.43;9-1, and 44:8-9). In other words, these two men were so-called, 'Jehovah's Witnesses'.
They were smartly dressed and very friendly, and it came as no surprise to me when, in an affable, conversational style, one of them asked me what I thought of the current world situation.
TSUNAMI. EARTHQUAKES. VOLCANIC ACTION. FLOODING. EPIDEMICS. GLOBAL WARMING. DESTRUCTION OF THE OZONE LAYER. COLLAPSE OF WORLD'S FINANCIAL SYSTEM.
Did I think that we are living in the 'end times'? Also, did I think that all the world's catastrophes and problems indicate the imminence of the Lord's return? Are they 'signs of the times'?
Now, I claim to be fairly well-versed in what "The Watchtower" organization teaches, and I am aware of the fact that its 'servants' have been instructed by their leaders, to radically change their approach when they go 'door to door'. They are no longer to present themselves in the old, uncompromising and rather superior manner which often left people feeling angry and antagonistic towards them. Instead, they must seek to engage their contacts in friendly discussion.
Some of us remember that,years ago, they met with wide-resentment, because of their manner of approach, but they accepted resentment and the rejection of their message quite happily, because they regarded themselves as being 'persecuted for righteousness sake', and, therefore, they went on their way rejoicing! But, in these days, they adopt a more diplomatic, conciliatory tone, and ask such question as those to which I have already referred, ready, when the opening presented itself, to introduce their 'gospel' of a Renovated Earth, dry cleaned and sanitize, free of all problems, and providing a Paradisaical life for the 'great multitude' who accept the 'Watchtower's' message, when Christ returns.
So, in these days, they constantly look for 'signs of the times': a phrase, the definition of which is given as, 'Evidences of the imminence of the Return of Christ and the End of the World'.
A Common Error
Now, the "Watchtower" is not alone in its search for 'signs'. Throughout the centuries of 'church history' men have preached and made predictions concerning the Lord's return, but we do not have the space here to deal with that aspect of the subject, but let me give you a few examples of misguided predictions from more modern times.Ellen.G.White was converted by William Miller in 1842, the year when he was attracting popular attention, predicting that the Return of the Lord would occur in 1843. Within a year he claimed 100,000 followers, and, when his prediction failed, he said there had been a slight miscalculation and Christ would return in 1844.
Some believed him, but when Christ did not return Millerism went to pieces, and it was later, in 1863 that Mrs White established the Seventh Day Adventist Church on the remnants of the Miller movement by simply adding the observance of the seventh day Sabbath. 'Chamber's Biographical Dictionary ' confirms the dates, and, if I took the time to examine my notes or my library I am sure that I could supply you with other statements in the same vein.
The information relating to Joseph Smith comes from the Mormon official 'Doctrine and Covenants Commentary' Section 130, which begins on p.1001 and which is headed, "Important Items of Instruction, given by Joseph, the Prophet. April 2nd, 1843".
The commentary on this 'revelation', tells us that on the 2nd of April, Smith had heard Orson Hyde, one of the first 'Apostles' of Mormon, refer to the return of the Lord, when speaking at a meeting. Later, at dinner, Smith called the attention to Hyde to his statements and said he would 'offer some words of correction'.
V. 14ff of this 'revelation' record Smith saying,
"'I was once praying very earnestly to know the time of the Coming of the Son of Man, when I heard a Voice repeat the following - 'Joseph, my son, if thou livest until thou art eighty-five years old, thou shalt see the face of the Son of Man; therefore, let this suffiice and trouble me no more on this matter".
"I was left thus, without being able to decide whether this coming referred to the beginning of the millennium, or to some previous appearing, or whether I should die and thus see his face".
Smith was 38 years old -(born in 1805)- at this time. Verse 13 in the same 'revelation' says that it was received when he was 'praying earnestly; in 11 years earlier, on December 25th 1832. Had he lived. he would have reached the magical age of 85 in 1890, but he died in 1844, shot whilst attempting to escape from the jail in Carthage.
Then Charles Taze Russell came along, in 1874 he published a pamphlet entitles, "The Object and Manner of the Lord's Return" and according to the 'official history' of the Watchtower movement, the same year he came down to breakfast and announced to those present, "The Lord is now present, although His presence has been graciously veiled from mortal view"
In fact Russell continued to say that the Lord had been on earth for three and a half years, but invisibly.
In 1918, the year following the death of Russell, His successor , the so-called Judge Rutherford, published a book, which declared that,"The world has ended. Millions now living will never die!"
And, one final example of this religious folly,
50 years ago there appeared a monthly religious magazine bearing the name, 'The Signs of the Times', and, as the title indicates, it was dedicated to identifying any event on earth, that might be seen as a 'sign of the times', and, therefore, as a sign that the Second Coming was at hand. In fact, I think that this magazine is still published in parts of the world where "Seventh-Day Adventism" seem strong; for example, in Australia and the U.S.A.
Furthermore, although they do not share the views of the 'Watchtower' concerning what will happen before or after the return of the Lord, there are other religious groups who also love to talk about 'the signs of the times' and whose ideas are just as erroneous as those of the self-styled "Witnesses", These groups, also, are convinced that His return will be preceded by the 'signs.' Indeed, the teaching of certain denominations on the subject of the "Second Coming" is the foundation that underpins everything else that they believe and teach, so that it has become nothing short of an obsession.
It is recorded that, on one occasion, C.H. Spurgeon, said, "Ye men of Plymouth, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? Get on with your work!"
It is sad, therefore, that it seems never to occur to these people that they may not be on biblical ground when they look for such 'signs' or that they may be guilty of teaching error when they claim that the Lord's return will be preceded by 'signs'. I say this because, when we examine the particular passage of scripture in which the phrase 'signs of the times' is mentioned, it becomes quite clear that the 'signs' to which the passage refers, have nothing whatsoever to do with the end of the World, or to the Lord's return.
Let me state this simply, there is not a single verse in the Word of God that instructs, or encourages, believers to look for 'signs of the times' in connection with the Lord's return, or with the end of the Age.
Matthew 16: The request for a sign.
That expression, 'signs of the times',occurs only once in the New Testament scriptures. It is found in Matt.16, where we read about an unlikely alliance of traditional enemies, the Pharisees and Sadducees, who came to Jesus 'tempting' Him; that is, testing Him'. They asked Him for a 'sign from heaven'. They had already raised the issue earlier, in Matthew 12:38, when they said, "Master, we would see a sign from you."
Incidentally, it is significant that they did not treat him with anything more than mild politeness. They merely called Him DIDASKALE, which means 'teacher'. In John 3: 2, Nicodemus also called Jesus 'Master', using the title 'Rabbi',- which also means 'teacher', but which is a much more respectful and honourable title.
But, notice what the Jewish leaders asked for. They asked for a 'sign', but a sign - of what?
There is no mention of His 'Return', or the end of the World. Why not? The reason is surely obvious, it would never have occurred to them to ask such questions, and they would even have regarded any suggestion that He may be the Messiah as outrageous and blasphemous. Only those who believe Him to be the Christ, would talk about such subjects. So, what sort of 'sign' were they seeking? And why did they want a sign? They demanded a sign because the issue was one of authority. They were challenging His authority, Because His authority depended on His identity. Had He, in fact, appeared on the scene with a message from God? In other words, was He a true prophet?
This was something that Nicodemus, himself a Pharisee, had already settled for himself and which he acknowledged when he said to Jesus, "We know you are a teacher come from God, for no-one can do the signs you do, unless God is with him", John 3:2. (Notice, please, that, although the 'A.V.' uses the word 'miracles', John actually consistently uses the word 'signs'.)
Later, when the faith of Nicodemus had grown stronger, he appears to have become a true 'believer' (John 19; 38-39).
Now, when the Jewish leaders asked for a 'sign from heaven' they thought they were setting Him a test which they were confident He would fail. They were demanding a demonstration of miraculous power as proof that He was a true prophet of God. We need to bear in mind that, because the Jews were a Theocracy, a people governed by God -(at least, in theory!) - they were never surprised when men came claiming to be prophets sent by God. But they invariably demand that anyone claiming to be divinely commissioned should give proof of his heavenly calling by a performing a miraculous act. Such an act would be accepted as the 'sign from heaven': that is, of 'heavenly' endorsement. So they said to Jesus, "What sign do you show?" "We would see a sign from heaven."
Yes!, you and I know that the Lord had already performed enough wonderful deeds to have convinced unbiased people that He had come from God, but, behind their opposition to Him we must see the fact that these religious leaders were actually concerned about their own authority which they felt He was undermining, they were resentful of His growing influence among the ordinary people who 'heard Him gladly', and they wilfully, and quite deliberately, refused to recognize and acknowledge the miracles He had already performed.
Matt.12 tells us that He had performed a miracle of healing which had amazed the common people, but the Pharisees dismissed the miracle, saying, "He casts out devils because he is in league with the Devil!" This is why He called them, "a wicked and adulterous generation",when they asked for a sign. He accused them of refusing to see the 'signs of the times'; that is, the signs of those times, and warned them that no special sign would be given to them.
The ultimate proof of His identity and His authority was one which had already been determined by 'heaven'. It was the sign of the prophet Jonah. Now, we know that he was speaking about His death, burial and resurrection on the third day. Rom. 1;4, states that He was 'declared to be the Son of God.......by the resurrection from the dead'' and it is this, the ultimate sign, which Jesus describes as 'the sign of the prophet Jonah'. He declared that the acts of power that He had already performed endorsed His identity and proved that He had come to do the will of the Father. But, these men shut their eyes against the evidence. More than this, they wickedly described His 'signs', performed by the power of the Holy Spirit, as the work of the Devil, and in so doing, they were actually committing the unforgivable sin.
Matthew 21. Authority again demanded.
This was not only occasion when the Jewish leaders showed they were dishonest men. On another occasion, described in Matthew 21;23, when Jesus was in the Temple teaching the people, the Jewish leaders descended on him in full force. The chief priests and elders of the people, backed, no doubt, by members of the Temple Guard who had the responsibility of maintaining order in the Temple-courts, came and demanded to know "By what authority do you do these things? And who gave you this authority?"
They knew that the previous day He had cleansed the Temple for the second time, and the words, 'these things' refer to the evens of that day; that is, to His cleansing of the Temple-court and His teaching of the people. The priests were indignant:
Firstly, because He had disrupted the business of buying and selling that went on in the Court of the Gentiles - an enterprise which they allowed and of which approved because it made them a great a of money, Matthew 21;12 and
Secondly, because He frequently taught the people in the Courts of the Temple, without first acknowledging their authority and obtaining their permission. Matthew 21;23.
In their view, Jesus was not a qualified and authorized teacher, and they therefore concluded that He acted with an authority He did not possess. Hence, their challenge: "By what authority do you do these things? And who gave you this authority?"
In response He asked them a question, concerning the authority of the baptism preached by John the Baptiser - Was his baptism from heaven, or of men? They were quick to understand the significance of the question, and so they declined to give Him an answer, claiming, 'We cannot tell'. We hear His scorn for these evil men,when He replied, 'Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.'
We see, then, that nothing in these scriptures concerns 'signs of the times' such as those for which my two "Watchtower" visitors were looking. When the Priests and Pharisees asked Jesus for a sign they were concerned about His identity and authority at that time, during His earthly ministry. They were concerned about his First Coming, not about His Second, concerning which they knew nothing, and understood nothing.
A plain denial of signs
Still in the Gospel according to Matthew, we see that in ch. 24 and 25, His disciples raised the matters of His Return and the end of the Age. In fact, they asked three questions, which we find in Matthew 24:3
1. There was a question concerning the destruction of the Temple and the City.
2. A question concerning 'the sign of thy coming'.
3. A question concerning 'the end of the world'.
In response to their first question, the Lord gave them detailed information and instruction, from ch. 24:4, then, at verse 36 of that chapter, we find this unmistakeable statement; "But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only."
The Lord warns that, as it was in the time of Noah before the Flood came and the people were going about their lives in the usual way, so it will be when He returns. In those days, they neither knew nor suspected that anything usual was about to happen. They paid no attention to Noah's warnings and were unprepared when the flood came and swept them all away.
He then proceeds to teach how believers should behave in view of the fact that there will be nothing to warn that His Coming is imminent. He says that it will be unheralded, like the coming of a thief, in the night, and He gives us, in parabolic form, three watchwords, when He says that we should be:
1. Waiting, 2. Watching and 3. Working,
No 'signs of the times'! No special evidence of His imminent appearance!. Instead, a solemn warning which every one of us should take seriously and think about more frequently,
Matthew 24:42. "Watch, therefore for you do not know at what hour your Lord will come."
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