Do we see “the signs of the times”?
“Mark this,” Paul wrote. “There will be terrible times in the last days” (2 Timothy 3:1). And what do we see now? America at war. Shootings in our schools. Disasters in the weather. Is it all coming to a climax? Will World War III soon be upon us?
We are living in the last days! — and we have been for almost 2,000 years. The last days, said Peter, were already here in the first century (Acts 2:16-17). “In these last days,” we are told in Hebrews 1:2, “God has spoken to us by his Son.” “The last days” began with Jesus Christ! When Paul told Timothy about the last days, he was not so much predicting the future as describing his own day. He was telling Timothy what kind of world he lived in.
Wars and rumors of wars
Wars have always been with us. Natural disasters have plagued humanity for millennia. Societies have been breaking down, and violence has been erupting, for centuries.
“You will hear of wars and rumors of wars,” Jesus said, “but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come” (Matthew 24:6). There will be famines and disasters, but those are only the beginning of problems. There will be persecutions, and there will be predictions. People will say, It is just around the corner, but do not believe it. Do not be alarmed. Just persevere. Just do the job set before you.
Someday, the end will indeed come. But rumors about the end have been greatly exaggerated. The world has had many disasters since the last days began nearly 2000 years ago, and I am sure that there will be many more. God can end the world whenever he wants to, and I will be happy for the great day to come, but I do not see any biblical proof that it will be very soon.
Frankly, we need faith and hope whether or not there is a war, whether or not the end is near. We need faith and zeal no matter how evil the days are, no matter how many disasters strike near us. Our responsibility before God does not change with the times: Our job is to preach the gospel, to preach repentance and forgiveness, to teach those who believe, and to worship God.
When we survey the world scene, we may see disasters in Africa, Asia, Europe, and America. Or, if we look with slightly different eyes, we may see fields white and ready for harvest. There is work to be done, as long as it is day. There is work to be done, and we must do the best we can with what we have. Where are we now in prophecy? We are now in the time in which the church should preach the gospel.
What should we do?
Jesus calls us to perseverance, to running with patience the race set before us. Paul likewise speaks of the end, when the children of God will be revealed, when all creation will be liberated from bondage (Romans 8:19-21). How then do we live? “We groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for…the redemption of our bodies” (verse 23). We are eager for the travails of this world to be over, but we are also patient (verse 25).
Peter gives the same outlook. He also waited for the day of the Lord, when the elements will be destroyed (2 Peter 3:10). What advice does he give us? “You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God” (verses 11-12). That is our responsibility day in and day out. We are called to live holy lives, not to make predictions the Bible does not authorize us to make. We are to be faithful in our daily lives.
Nevertheless, in the last days there will be people with a veneer of godliness but denying the power of Jesus Christ. There will be people who deceive and are deceived, people who proclaim the end is near. Do not be alarmed; do not be deceived. Simply do what God has been telling his church to do for nearly 2,000 years: worship, teach and preach.
God will take care of the timetable — our job is to be found faithfully working, whenever the end happens to come. Correct predictions don’t count for anything on the day of judgment — only faithfulness will be rewarded.
National and physical blessings
Nevertheless, some people seem anxious for the end to come. They would do well to heed the words of Isaiah:
Woe to those...who say, “Let God hurry, let him hasten his work so we may see it. Let it approach, let the plan of the Holy One of Israel come, so we may know it.”... Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight. (Isaiah 5:18-21)
It is interesting that the prophecy speculators often mix nationalism in with their prophecies. They are interested in the welfare of America specifically, as if Americans are in greater need of repentance than the Chinese are. They want national repentance so that God will “heal this land” and they can live in peace and safety. Many of them assume that if America obeys God, then we will reap the blessings God promised to ancient Israel.
Repentance is a good thing, of course. It is good to have peace and safety, and I would enjoy such blessings just as much as anybody else. But I wonder about the propriety of wanting other people to repent so that we can enjoy physical blessings. Does not repentance begin at home, beginning with our personal self-centeredness? Shouldn’t spiritual blessings for others be a greater incentive for us to want them to turn to God? Didn’t Jesus tell us to be concerned about all nations, not just our own?
In this fallen world, God allows natural disasters, sins and evils. He also causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the good as well as the bad. As both Job and Jesus show, he also allows evil to fall upon the righteous. This is the way God allows the world to function.
For the ancient nation of Israel, under a special covenant, God promised that if the nation was obedient, he would prevent the natural disasters that normally fall upon both the wicked and the righteous. He did not give that guarantee to other nations, nor did he say that other nations could elect themselves to a position of most-favored nation in his sight. Modern nations cannot claim as promises the blessings God offered specifically to Israel in a special covenant that is now obsolete.
The Bible makes no guarantees that even if all of America repents, that we will no longer have any troubles. The new covenant, the better covenant, offers spiritual life rather than guaranteeing physical blessings. By faith, we are to focus on the spiritual, not the physical.
Physical things are not wrong, of course, and God often does intervene in physical affairs to help us. But the new covenant does not make guarantees as to when and where he will do it. The new covenant calls us to faith despite the circumstances, to faithfulness despite persecution, to patience despite an eager longing for the better world that Jesus will bring.
Here is one more thought that may put prophecy into better perspective: Prophecy’s greatest purpose is not to get us to focus on dates — it is so that we will “know the Lord.” Prophecy is to point us to Jesus, the best of all possible blessings. Once we have arrived at our destination, we no longer need to focus on the path that brought us to him.