“In the same way, when you see these things happening, recognize that he is near–at the door. . .Now concerning that day or hour no one knows–neither the angels in heaven nor the Son–but only the Father.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Something a little different for you this morning and we’ll get back to Habakkuk early next week. With all the chaos of the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the world there is a growing question on the minds of many folks with even the slightest amount of spiritual sensitivity: Are we in the end times? Personally I’ve been asked this twice this week. So then, are we? Let’s talk about it.
There are several different places in the Scriptures that contain apocalyptic descriptions of the end of the world. Many of the most well-known are, of course, in the book of Revelation. But, a simple description of the end of the world isn’t necessarily helpful for answering that question. The biggest reason for that is that John wasn’t writing with us in mind. He was writing with his own audience in mind and spoke in terms they would be able to understand. We absolutely cannot point to modern events and declare with any amount of confidence that this or that is in perfect accord with something John said and thus we are officially in the end times.
So then, where else can we look? Well, let me take you this morning to something Jesus said. I’m not taking you here because Jesus’ words are better or more descriptive than John’s. I’m not taking you here because we get any clearer answer to the question of whether or not we’re in the end times. I’m taking you here because I think this passage gives us a bit of perspective on things that I find to be pretty helpful.
In Mark 13 Jesus blew the disciples’ minds in a way they had never before experienced. The group was making their way out of the temple, heading for the Mount of Olives on the outskirts of the city. On their way out, one of the guys marveled to Jesus at what an amazing structure the temple was. “Teacher, look! What massive stones! What impressive buildings!” Jesus didn’t even miss a beat. “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another–all will be thrown down.”
Needless to say, this put the disciples’ minds in a bit of a spin-cycle. In their minds and in the mind of every Jew in the first century, the temple was something permanent. It was massive and impressive. There’s no way anything was ever going to happen to it. The thought that it would one day be completely destroyed–so completely destroyed that not one stone would be left standing on another–was an entirely new category of thinking for them. So naturally, they asked Jesus about it. They asked Him when it would happen and what would be the signs to watch for so they could be ready.
In what follows, Jesus tells them in pretty graphic detail. There is a pretty healthy debate among New Testament scholars as to whether Jesus is talking about something near-term (namely the destruction of the temple by the Romans in 70 A.D.) or something long-term (for example, the end of the world). Most folks think Jesus was definitely talking about the destruction of the temple early on in His response. Exactly whether or where He shifts gears to a more global perspective isn’t totally clear. Personally, I’m of the mind that He never completely stops talking about the destruction of the temple, but somewhere toward the end He starts to blend in a broader perspective. That’s where we find the couple of verses I included at the beginning.
There is a natural tension between these two verses. On the one hand, Jesus told them–and by extension us–to be ready. When we see the signs, we know the end is near. On the other hand, He is emphatic that no one knows the timing of the end. No one. If someone tells you otherwise, they’re either wrong or lying or both.
Yeah, but what about…
Here’s the thing: In every generation since Jesus departed the scene, something has happened that has made some folks absolutely confident that the end is near. Some generations have had multiple happenings of this nature. And, one thing each different generation has had in common is that the predictions of a soon-coming end have been uniformly wrong. There have been plagues. Pandemics. World-wide wars. Economic disasters. Social catastrophes. The turning of whole millennia…twice (people were just as convinced as 999 turned over to the year 1000 that the end was here as they were in 1999).
In 1918 the Spanish Flu pandemic swept the world. 500 million people were infected before it was over–a full quarter of the world’s population. By comparison, that would be the equivalent of 1.925 billion people being infected by the coronavirus. We’re currently at about 250,000 with about 10,000 deaths. Those numbers are sure to go up in the weeks and even months ahead, but we’re talking about numbers on an entirely different scale than they were then. All told, the Spanish Flu killed somewhere north of 17 million people and possibly as many as 100 million. If that higher number is right, the Spanish Flu’s mortality rate was 20%. The coronavirus’ mortality rate is hovering around 4%. What we’re facing today is bad, and in all likelihood it is going to get worse. The economic toll from this is only beginning and all signs are pointing toward it being utterly devastating. But what we’re facing is bad on an entirely different–and smaller–scale than humanity has faced in the past. That and advances in medical science are likely to see us gaining the upper hand on things sooner rather than later. There are many reasons for hope here.
But, that doesn’t answer the question. Are we in the end times? My answer? Yes and no. Helpful enough?
Yes, we are in the end times…and we have been in the end times since Jesus left the scene. For my money, the best understanding of Revelation is not that John sketches out a finite period of time for us that will formally be dubbed the “end times.” Rather, he paints a picture of the fact that before Jesus returns things are going to get really hairy. Well, things have gotten really hairy several times since He’s been gone. Hairy enough, I’d say, to just classify the whole span of history since as the end times. We are in the season of preparation in which we need to be readying ourselves for His return.
On the other hand, no, this pandemic does not mean we are somehow closer to the day of His return than we were six months ago except in purely linear terms. Is this a sign of the end? Perhaps. But not one that we should take as any clearer than any of the previous signs we’ve seen. Again: No one knows when Jesus will return. No one. If they tell you they do they are lying, wrong, or both.
The real question about which followers of Jesus should be concerned is not, “Are we in the end times?” We are. The real question of concern for us is, “How should we be living given the time that we are in?” Throughout this whole experience, as hard as it is and will yet be, let us not think for an instant that our God is not still on His throne. Jesus is still king and will be for eternity. No virus outbreak or any other kind of apocalyptic happening will change that fact.
In this difficult season, then, here are some things you can be doing. Remain faithful. Let this be considered a test of your faith. Are you turning to and growing in your relationship with God during this time, or are you drifting away? Consider this a bit of a midterm exam. When you don’t have anyone else to rely on to spur you on toward faithfulness, are you still moving in that direction or was it mostly just a show to impress others? And if it turns out to have been mostly show, what are you going to do about it?
Study the Scriptures. What if you came back to church in a few weeks more ready to teach others about the riches of the Word than you were when you left? Invest yourself in prayer. Imagine the power that will be unleashed if when our churches begin gathering as whole groups again they were filled with folks who were more committed to prayer than they were when they left. Learn to worship in spirit and in truth and not just because the band is performing a song you really like. Imagine a roomful of people committed to worshiping in their hearts together, joining as one in the great chorus of praise always going on in heaven. Serve others. Keep your distance, but use every digital and analog means otherwise still available to you to express the love of Christ in meaningful ways to those who need it most. Imagine if the church community as a whole grew stronger because of this season of separation. Practice sacrificial generosity. Many of us give when we go to church. If we don’t go to church, we don’t give. But if we don’t give, we get owned by our stuff rather than being the good stewards God has called us to be. How we give will have to change for a time, but even when things get tight, if we don’t keep giving, we’ll develop a spiritual virus that will be far more destructive in the long-term than this physical virus will be.
We will get through this. Jesus is still Lord. God is still good. Things are hard and they will likely get harder. But the God who conquered the grave isn’t challenged by a virus. Turn to Him and live.
Let me leave you with some words that were written for just such a time as this. These are from 2 Peter 3:10 and following:
“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief; on that day the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, the elements will burn and be dissolved, and the earth and the works on it will be disclosed. Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, it is clear what sort of people you should be in holy conduct and godliness as you wait for the day of God and hasten its coming. Because of that day, the heavens will be dissolved with fire and the elements will melt with heat. But based on his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.
“Therefore, dear friends, while you wait for these things, make every effort to be found without spot or blemish in his sight, at peace. Also, regard the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our dear brother Paul has written to you according to the wisdom given to him. He speaks about these things in all his letters. There are some matters that are hard to understand. The untaught and unstable will twist them to their own destruction, as they also do with the rest of the Scriptures.
“Therefore, dear friends, since you know this in advance, be on your guard, so that you are not led away by the error of lawless people and fall from your own stable position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity.”