SIGNS OF THE TIMES
By Ward Fenley

SIGNS OF THE TIMES

Matthew 16:1-3 The Pharisees also with the Sadducees came, and tempting desired him that he would show them a sign from heaven. 2 He answered and said unto them, When it is evening, ye say, It will be fair weather: for the sky is red. 3 And in the morning, It will be foul weather to day: for the sky is red and lowering. O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times? Time statements are crucial in understanding the appearing of Jesus Christ at the end of the Jewish age. Equally important is the abundance of signs that were present during the Apostolic era. The question of Jesus to the hypocritical Pharisees was to show not only the blindness of these Pharisees to the manifestation of the messenger, John the Baptist, and the miracles of Jesus, it also proved that whatever signs were happening were taking place in the first century. The unbelieving, unsuspecting Jews were oblivious to these very signs of the coming judgment upon the people of God. In fact, the signs of the deaf hearing, the blind seeing, and the dead being raised to life should have been obvious to the Jews. The appearance of John the Baptist was evidence that the judgment was drawing near (Malachi 3:1,2; 4:5). The Jews, however, because of the hardness of their hearts, refused to believe not only John and Jesus but also the signs or works of Christ. Jesus even had to rebuke Philip for his unbelief in questioning the Messiah: John 14:8-11 Philip saith unto him, Lord, show us the Father, and it sufficeth us. 9 Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? he that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, Show us the Father? 10 Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? the words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father in me: or else believe me for the very works' sake. Jesus here declares that His authority and Person should be manifest by His very works. Again, this is precisely why Jesus responded to John the Baptistís inquiry from prison whether He was the Messiah: Matthew 11:4-5 Jesus answered and said unto them, Go and show John again those things which ye do hear and see: 5 The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. The signs were incontestable. The storm was about to come. The parallel passage to Matthew 16:1-3 is found in Luke 12: Luke 12:54-56 And he said also to the people, When ye see a cloud rise out of the west, straightway ye say, There cometh a shower; and so it is. 55 And when ye see the south wind blow, ye say, There will be heat; and it cometh to pass. 56 Ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky and of the earth; but how is it that ye do not discern this time? We have seen that Jesus was amazed at the inability of the Jews to comprehend the signs to determine the approaching storm or "heat" of judgment.

Perhaps more than any other century in church history, the twentieth-century church has had the greatest obsession with what the Bible defines as the "signs of the times." Jesus questioned why the Jews could not discern "this time" or the signs of the times. Yet, within the twentieth-century evangelical movement, the vast majority are convinced that we are seeing presently the signs of the times. Why would Jesus be so astonished that Jews could not discern the signs of the times if they were not to take place for another two thousand years? The Christian church has bought the lie that we are in the "last days" and are experiencing the signs of the times. The Bible, however, is very plain that those in the first-century Christian church were the ones who were in the "last days" and were experiencing the signs of the times. The "last days" were the last days of the Jewish age, and the signs of the times were the signs of the time of the end of that same Jewish age and the imminence of the kingdom of God. We will now examine some of the signs by which the first-century Christian church could be absolutely convinced that the return of Jesus Christ to judge the world and establish His kingdom was about to take place.

In Matthew 24, Jesus delivers His notable Olivet discourse. Within this chapter and its parallels found in Mark and Luke, we see the signs that signified the nearness of the coming of Jesus Christ. He expresses with such certainty the signs that would indicate the imminence of His coming that the apostles would later declare the fulfillment of these signs as they transpired, thus preparing their hearers for the Day of the Lord. The context is just after Jesus reproved the hypocritical Jews as the children of those that killed the prophets. To show the continuing Jewish judgment motif, here is the context from chapter 23 with the first verse of chapter 24:

Matthew 23:35-39 That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar. 36 Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation. 37 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! 38 Behold, your house is left unto you desolate. 39 For I say unto you, Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord. 24: 1 And Jesus went out, and departed from the temple: and his disciples came to him for to show him the buildings of the temple. Without the chapter break the context is held intact. Jesus just proclaimed to the apostate Jews that he was going to leave their "house" desolate. The whole context in Matthew 23:13-39 exhibits the intense anger Jesus expressed toward the Jews. Too often we break up the flow of the circumstance that had just transpired with the apostates. The first verse of chapter twenty four, without question clarifies the timing of the apostles showing Christ the things of the Temple, for the verse says, "And Jesus went out and departed from the temple." He had just been railing upon the Jews within the Temple (21:23) about their self-righteousness and their slaughter of the prophets of God. We can be sure that His anger was kindled when He left the Temple. It is important to keep in mind that one of the last statements He made to the Jews was that He was going to leave their house desolate. It was at this point that He exited the Temple, and His disciples began to show Him the same buildings from the outside. Therefore, we can be sure what was on the mind of Jesus as the disciples marveled at the stones of the Temple. His anger would be turned into the solemn warning to His disciples that He would come back in their generation to waste the Jews and their system.

Just what was it that the disciples showed Christ after He left the Temple? There are some differing interpretations as to the meaning of the word temple; however, upon comparison with the other Gospel accounts, the physical Temple at Jerusalem is the object of concern. Examine these comparisons:

Matthew 24:1 And Jesus went out, and departed from the temple: and his disciples came to him for to show him the buildings of the temple.

Mark 13:1 And as he went out of the temple, one of his disciples saith unto him, Master, see what manner of stones and what buildings are here!

Luke 21:5 And as some spake of the temple, how it was adorned with goodly stones and gifts, he said...

The subsequent response of Christ assured His audience that He understood that they were speaking of the Temple. Matthew 24:2 And Jesus said unto them, See ye not all these things? verily I say unto you, There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.

Mark 13:2 And Jesus answering said unto him, Seest thou these great buildings? there shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.

Luke 21:6 As for these things which ye behold, the days will come, in the which there shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.

The brooding message Christ delivered was that which would signify the final destruction of the Jewish religious system which had been around for at least thirteen hundred years. The consequent response of the disciples asserts the gravity of Christís omen against the Temple and the correlation between this event and the coming of Christ: Matthew 24:3 And as he sat upon the mount of Olives, the disciples came unto him privately, saying, Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?

Mark 13:3-4 And as he sat upon the mount of Olives over against the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately, 4 Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign when all these things shall be fulfilled?

Luke 21:7 And they asked him, saying, Master, but when shall these things be? and what sign will there be when these things shall come to pass?

There has been much confusion over the understanding of the disciples in regard to Christís pronouncement against the Temple. Various interpretations have been set forth by many expositors; nevertheless, we must use the Scripture to explain why the disciples asked what they asked and what they associated with the destruction of the Temple. The account in Matthew 24:3 presents two questions asked by the disciples. The questions are: when shall these things be? what shall be the sign of Thy coming and of the end of the world (Gk. aeon or age)? Some have proposed that the account of Matthew proves that the disciples were addressing two events that would take place thousands of years from each other, i.e., "when shall these things be", refers to the destruction of the Temple in A.D.70., and "what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world", refers to a yet future coming and destruction of the physical planet. This argument is quickly dispelled when the mindset of the disciples is considered. Often in eschatological commentaries, the significance of what a first-century Jew understood is overlooked. Pondering the response of the disciples to the proclamation of the destruction of the Temple by Jesus should cause us to question why the disciples asked what they asked.

The first question was, "When shall these things be?" The second question was, "What shall be the sign of Thy coming and of the end of the age?" The question of when is a logical question that any generation of Jews or Gentiles would ask. The second question involved that of Christís coming and His ending the age. If it is true that the first question involved the destruction of the Temple, then why would the disciples be so quick to follow that question with asking what the signs would be showing the coming end of the age? The answer lies in the disciplesí understanding of the O.T. We must be careful not to assume that the disciplesí understanding of O.T. prophecy was limited or faulty pertaining to timeframe. After all, they had been with Jesus, who spoke to them of many things concerning Himself, of which things He would probably have corrected them after His resurrection if they were mistaken. But even then the Savior says:

Luke 24:44-47 And he said unto them, These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me. 45 Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the Scriptures, 46 And said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day: 47 And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. We also must remember the disciplesí response when Jesus questioned them concerning their understanding of the parables of the kingdom of God which involved the timeframe and the nature of the kingdom: Matthew 13:51 Jesus saith unto them, Have ye understood all these things? They say unto him, Yea, Lord. Therefore, when considering some O.T. passages that pertain to the end of the Jewish system, it should be assumed that the disciples were probably aware of those particular passages. Let us investigate some of these passages: Zechariah 14:1-5 Behold, the day of the LORD cometh, and thy spoil shall be divided in the midst of thee. 2 For I will gather all nations against Jerusalem to battle; and the city shall be taken, and the houses rifled, and the women ravished; and half of the city shall go forth into captivity, and the residue of the people shall not be cut off from the city. 3 Then shall the LORD go forth, and fight against those nations, as when he fought in the day of battle. 4 And his feet shall stand in that day upon the mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem on the east, and the mount of Olives shall cleave in the midst thereof toward the east and toward the west, and there shall be a very great valley; and half of the mountain shall remove toward the north, and half of it toward the south. 5 And ye shall flee to the valley of the mountains; for the valley of the mountains shall reach unto Azal: yea, ye shall flee, like as ye fled from before the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah: and the LORD my God shall come, and all the saints with thee. We must not take the telescopic eschatological position and try to separate the taking of the city and the coming of the Lord with the saints with a two-thousand-year interjection. The disciples did not separate these, nor did Jesus, nor any of the apostles in the N.T. Scriptures. In Zechariah 14:1,2, the destruction of Jerusalem is clearly prophesied. No gap should be imposed upon the text between the destruction (verse 2) and the coming of the Lord (verse 5). This is one passage that should give us understanding as to why the disciples associated the destruction of the Temple with the coming of the Lord and the end of the age.

Yet another passage that associates the coming of the Lord with the destruction of Jerusalem is found in Zechariah 12:10-14:

And I will pour upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of supplications: and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him, as one mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for him, as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn. 11 In that day shall there be a great mourning in Jerusalem, as the mourning of Hadadrimmon in the valley of Megiddon. 12 And the land shall mourn, every family apart; the family of the house of David apart, and their wives apart; the family of the house of Nathan apart, and their wives apart; 13 The family of the house of Levi apart, and their wives apart; the family of Shimei apart, and their wives apart; 14 All the families that remain, every family apart, and their wives apart. Those who had truly searched the Scriptures were very aware of the fact that the destruction of Jerusalem was synonymous with the coming of the Lord. With these two texts in mind, it becomes very evident why the disciples associated the two events.

Greater support that the disciples were not addressing two events separated by thousands of years emerges when the parallel passages are placed together

Matthew 24:3 And as he sat upon the mount of Olives, the disciples came unto him privately, saying, Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?

Mark 13:4 Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign when all these things shall be fulfilled?

Luke 21:7 And they asked him, saying, Master, but when shall these things be? and what sign will there be when these things shall come to pass?

Notice the accounts of Mark and Luke as they present the disciplesí questions. Mark and Luke, like Matthew, record two questions asked by the disciples. The first question in all three accounts is the same: "When shall these things be?" When the second question is harmoniously compared, the mind of the disciples is exposed concerning their true assumption regarding the destruction of Jerusalem:

Matthew:    what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?
Mark:         what shall be the sign when all these things shall be fulfilled?
Luke:          what sign will there be when these things shall come to pass?

In Mark and Luke the phrase, "these things" is referring to the first question, "When shall these things be?". "These things" in the second question of Mark and Luke is referring to the Temple. Markís and Lukeís account with the parenthetical statement, "the destruction of the Temple," would read as follows: Mark: "What shall be the sign when all these things (the destruction of the Temple) shall be fulfilled?" Luke: "What sign will there be when these things (the destruction of the Temple) shall come to pass?"

The word "sign" should now inform us about the intention and thought of the disciples with regard to the account in Matthew, especially when the parenthetical statement is interjected: "What shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world (the destruction of Jerusalem)?" The signs which the disciples requested were those that would prove the imminence of the coming destruction and the return of Christ.

If the disciples were mistaken in their assumption that the destruction of the Temple was synonymous with the coming of the Lord, one would think that the Lord, who knew their hearts (Matthew 9:4; Mark 2:8; Luke 16:15), would have corrected their erroneous conclusion. This, however, is not the case. Rather, He began to answer their questions with what would be the primary text used to prepare the early church for the return of Christ. This was so the apostles could identify the signs by which they could assure themselves and their hearers that the Lord was about to judge national Israel and vindicate Heavenly Israel.

As far as signs are concerned it should be noted that many evangelical circles are talking about the signs of the times. It is very true that in the twentieth century we have experienced false Christs, false prophets, earthquakes, famines, pestilences, wars and rumors of wars, etc. However, does the presence of these things validate the supposition that Matthew 24 refers to this century? Have there not been wars throughout the last two thousand years? Have there not been pestilences? earthquakes? famines? Of course there have! One need only to go to the library and look up wars or famines or pestilences, and they will find an abundance of these throughout the centuries following the apostolic era. In fact, it is amazing to see how many generations thought that Christ would be coming in their lifetime because they thought that the signs in the Olivet discourse applied to their generation. Providentially, the focus in this chapter is not to prove that the signs in Matthew 24 took place throughout Christian history to the twentieth century. Instead, the focus of this chapter will be to prove from Scripture that these signs took place, with the frequency that our Lord predicted, before the destruction of Jerusalem. In so doing, we will, by the grace of God, be able to see and repudiate the extreme deception into which the twentieth-century evangelical movement has fallen.

There are many signs in the Olivet discourse; however, we will examine three of these signs in particular: the presence of false prophets and false Christs, the persecution of the Christians enduring to the end, and the proclamation of the Gospel to the world.

Ward Fenley


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