Signs of the End: Are the Signs Really Signs?

When I was eight years old, I stood with my parents in front of our home and watched Sputnik (the first man-made satellite of earth) move with surprising speed across the night sky. Shortly after that an earnest fellow believer declared, “God will never let man land on the moon, Jesus will come first.” For him, as for many Christians, various events in today’s world provide evidence or signs that the coming of Jesus is truly near. He felt that since it would be inappropriate for human beings to defile another planet (having already messed up this one!), the approach of human exploration of the moon and the planets became a “sign” that the second coming of Jesus was at hand.

A few years later I got up at three in the morning to witness the live broadcast of Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon. Jesus did not come to intervene. Evidently human occupation of the moon was of less concern to God than my fellow believer had assumed. It turned out not to be a “sign of the End.” Incidents like these make people wonder: Will we ever know with absolute certainty that the return of Jesus is at hand? Are the signs really signs?

When we examine the New Testament, we discover that many world events that Christians take as “signs of the End” are really “signs of the age” instead. Rather than pointing to the timing of the second coming, they confirm that His predicted return at the end of the age is secure. They encourage us to believe that if Jesus knew the character of the whole age in advance, He will not be mistaken about the event that brings it to a close.

For example, when the disciples asked Jesus (Matt 24:3) about the “sign”of His coming and the end of the age, He replied, “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.” Matt 24:6 (NIV). Wars and rumors of wars made great signs of the End in the Jewish apocalyptic of Jesus’ day, but in Matt 24 they do not herald the End, they are part of what life is like before the End.

To fully understand what Jesus was doing in Matthew 24, it is helpful understand how the Judaism of Jesus’ day handled the same ideas (an excellent summary of the early Jewish perspective on signs can be found in D. S. Russell, The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic [Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1964], 271-276). The Jewish understanding of signs, which the disciples of Jesus would have shared, was based on the Day of the Lord passages in the OT. It was felt that the near approach of the End would be marked by wars, wickedness, earthquakes, famines, and heavenly portents, among other things. So Jesus is not inventing the concept of signs, He is moderating their impact on the disciples. So it is fascinating that Jesus’ “signs” are generally used for the opposite of the purpose He intended.

Jesus goes on: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.” Matt 24:7-8. Wars, famines and earthquakes do not signal the End, they signal the beginning! The disciples asked for a sign of the End, Jesus gave them signs of the age. These “signs” are not intended to stimulate speculation regarding the timing of the end, they are to remind us of Jesus’ words, which encourage us to be watchful for the End at all times (Matt 24:42).

Jesus does seem to give a measurable sign of the nearness of the End in Matt 24:14. The End will come when the gospel has been preached to the whole world. Yes, the gospel must be preached to the world before the Lord comes, but it is not the kind of sign you can base a calculation on. After all, Paul had the impression that this sign had been fulfilled already in his day (Col 1:23). The only sign that meets the disciples’ intention is the “sign of the son of man” in 24:30. But this appears to be the literal glory that surrounds Jesus Himself at His coming. Those who wait for this sign will be too late.

Jesus’ response to His disciples is disappointing to me in a way. It would seem easier for us if He would have given us all the details about the End, and the events leading up to It, then we could line them all up, see exactly where we are, and know when we have to get ready. But apparently that wasn’t Jesus’ purpose. Apparently that wouldn’t have been the best thing for us. What then was His purpose in this chapter? He gives us that in Matt 24:42. “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.”

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