Signs of the Times

As we wrap up our series, You Believe What? this week, we are talking at the end about what followers of Jesus should believe about the end of the world. So often our thinking and questions about this huge topic are focused on timing. When you survey the Scriptures, though, something else rises to the top as the most pressing issue. This is the one that should shape our thinking. And like we’ve seen along the way of this entire journey, it’s a whole lot simpler than we make it out to be. Let’s talk about it.

Signs of the Times

 I thought I would give you a little test this morning. I hope you studied. Actually, this is one that most of you should technically be able to pass by virtue of the fact that you drove here this morning. Yes, that’s right, we are going to do a little road sign recognition exam. I’m going to put some different signs up on the screen and you are going to tell me what they are. And just because I played a dirty trick on you last time I did something like this doesn’t mean I’m going to now. There are not going to be any trick questions this time.

Let’s start with an easy one. What’s this first one? Yep, that’s a stop sign. If you didn’t recognize that one, you may have gotten a ticket on your way to church this morning. How about this next one? That is a No U-Turn sign. I find those are usually put right exactly at a point I really need to make a U-turn to go the other way on an unfamiliar highway. How about this one? You don’t see many of these. This is a no right turn on red sign. You’ll find these in Maryland, and I think they must be to boost up community coffers by preying on out-of-state drivers who are used to driving there like they do at home. This next one’s pretty easy: No bicycles. How about this? If COVID hadn’t have messed up the state’s plans, this one would have been posted up at the Big Lick intersection. It’s a warning that you are about to enter a circular intersection, also known as a roundabout. One last one and this is just for fun. This one is pretty obvious. There was one of these down the road from my parent’s house when there used to be a little regional airport down there. One time a car was sitting on the side of the road at the end of the runway watching planes land and one landed a little too soon…right on top of the car. Fortunately, everybody was okay, but they put a sign up afterwards.

Signs are everywhere, aren’t they? And most of the time we do well to pay attention to them. The Five Man Electrical Band may not have liked them back in the 1970s, but they are a part of life. We actually depend on signs. This is especially true when we are in unfamiliar territory. Signs help us know where to go and what to look for when we get there. In fact, when we don’t see signs, we start looking for them. This goes when we are looking for directions to a destination. But it also applies when we are looking for directions through life. It applies when we are looking for direction through life on the way to our final destination.

This morning we are finally at the end of our series, You Believe What? This has been quite a journey, hasn’t it? We’ve covered a lot of big topics along the way. We certainly haven’t clarified anything like a systematic theology, but if you are a follower of Jesus, my sincere hope is that you understand exactly what it is you believe about God a little better than you did a few weeks ago. That has really been what has driven this whole series: As followers of Jesus, it is vital that we understand what we believe and why we believe that instead of something else. Given that we live in a culture that is rapidly transitioning from something even somewhat recognizably Christian to one where Christians are more and more likely to be seen as a pariah to be tenuously tolerated at best (and then only as long as we keep our weird beliefs to ourselves), it is more important than ever for us to be able to answer the question of what we believe. So far on this journey we have sought to bring clarity to our beliefs about God, people, sin, redemption, the resurrection, and the Holy Spirit (which Nate did terrific job of addressing last week). This morning as we have arrived at the end of our series, it is only appropriate that we talk about what we believe about the end of the world.

Talking about the end of the world, though, is tricky. It’s tricky because it’s in the future which means we necessarily don’t have any experience with it. Making matters even more challenging, what we have in the Scriptures isn’t always so clear to understand. There are all kinds of questions that come up when we start going down this road. Most of these center around timing. Well, this morning, we are not going to address any of those. And indeed, when you survey what the various guys who contributed to the writings we have on the end of the world had to say about it, there was something of much greater concern generally than the timing of the end. If this other thing was their concern, it should be ours as well.

Now, normally, if you were going to try to learn about a Christian view of the end of the world, where would you go? Revelation, right? And that’s not without good reason. John has a great deal to say about what it will be like then. But while John’s vision is powerful and important, this morning, I want to take you to what another pretty prominent New Testament figure had to say about the end of the world. This figure was Jesus, and He had a conversation with the disciples about the end that Matthew recorded for us. Find your way to Matthew 24 with me and let’s see if we can make sense of what we see here.

Matthew 24 takes place after Jesus has made His famous triumphal ride into the city of Jerusalem. He spent the first four days of the week going back and forth between Jerusalem during the day and the suburb of Bethany at night. He spent each day teaching and provoking conflict with the religious authorities. On Tuesday afternoon, Jesus and the guys were preparing to head out of the city for the evening. As they went, the disciples couldn’t help but marvel at the magnificence of the temple complex. And to their credit, it really would have been an impressive complex. Herod, for all his faults, really earned his title of “the Great” with that particular building project. Just like perhaps you have been blown away seeing National Mall in Washington, D.C., the disciples felt the same about the Jerusalem temple complex. And as they marveled, one of them said to Jesus, “Teacher, look! What massive stones! What impressive buildings!”

They no doubt expected Jesus to say something like this in response, “You know, the temple really is an amazing place.” After all, that was what every other Jew in that day thought when seeing it. Of course, Jesus was Jesus, so He didn’t play ball. From Matthew 24:2: “He replied to them, ‘Do you see all these things? Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here on another that will not be thrown down.’” Needless to say, that got their attention. Sticking with our previous illustration, it would have been like you marveling about the opulence of our capital city and someone responding with, “You know what? This whole place is going to be destroyed one day. It will be completely gone.” Your reaction, like theirs was, would have been a mixture of shock and offense. How dare He say that! What would prompt such a verbal affront to everything they knew to be true and good? He might as well have been describing the end of the world. So they asked Him. And as it turns out, He kind of was.

“While he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples approached him privately and said, ‘Tell us, when will these things happen? And what is the sign of your coming and the end of the age?’”  Have you ever wanted to ask Jesus something like that before? Now, the transition from when is Jerusalem going to be destroyed to when is the end of the age going to be may seem a little sudden in your mind, but as far as the disciples understood it, the destruction of the temple would be the end of the world. And the Messiah was going to return then, so naturally, the destruction of Jerusalem would coincide with His return. Thus the connection.

What follows is a conversation—monologue, really—in which Jesus tells the disciples all kinds of things about the future. And I’ll just tell you right now, some of it is focused on the end of the world, some of it is focused on the destruction of Jerusalem, and those aren’t the same events. The destruction of Jerusalem happened in A.D. 70 at the hands of Rome. The Jews finally rebelled against Roman rule enough times that the latter got tired of putting up with it and so punished the city with total destruction. They literally took the temple apart down to its foundation. Not one single stone was left standing on another…just as Jesus had said. As a matter of fact, when you survey all of the things He said about that awful time, Jesus’ prophecy is incredibly specific, and we can point historically to one direct fulfillment after another. He is specific enough to push some critical scholars to suggest the Gospels were all written after the event rather than before it. It would have been for them like the total annihilation of New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. all at once would be for us. The entire system of ancient Judaism was brought to a sudden and violent halt on that day.

At the same time, though, Jesus is also talking about the end of the world as well. It’s not entirely clear when He’s talking about which event. More than even that, though, Jesus makes two points over the course of this monologue that are worth our attention. The first point is that if we pay attention to the signs, we can have some sort of clue where we are on the timeline of human history. He actually starts here in v. 4 in direct response to their question of signs to catch: “Jesus replied to them: ‘Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, saying, “I am the Messiah,” and they will deceive many. You are going to hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, because these things must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these events are the beginning of labor pains.’” He goes on to talk about the “abomination of desolation” and even more cosmic signs like the sun and the moon going dark. He uses a parable about a fig tree to tell the disciples to pay attention to the signs. Sign, sign, everywhere a sign.

And if this were the only part of what Jesus said you really caught, it would seem to give credence to the notion that if we will just pay close attention to the world events unfolding around us, we can have some sort of a clue as to when Jesus will return. Now, to really build in that kind of an idea, you have to fairly well ignore the stuff Jesus said that was focused on the destruction of Jerusalem, but it’s much more interesting to think about our end than some cataclysmic event almost 2,000 years ago.

We could do that too if it weren’t for the other point Jesus made. He gets to this point pretty clearly starting in v. 36: “Now concerning that day and hour no one knows—neither the angels of heaven nor the Son—except the Father alone.” He goes on to offer a couple of different examples of people being caught entirely off guard by events and makes explicit that His coming will be like that. Then He says this: “Therefore be alert, since you don’t know what day your Lord is coming. But know this: If the homeowner had known what time the thief was coming, he would have stayed alert and not let his house be broken into. This is why you are also to be ready, because the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”

This begs a rather obvious question: What are we supposed to do with this? On the one hand, Jesus says to watch for signs of His return. On the other hand, He makes rather explicitly clear that no one knows when His return is going to happen so we should be ready at all times. What gives? It kind of feels like Jesus is talking out of both sides of His mouth. What, as followers of Jesus, should we be thinking about the end of the world?

Well, for starters, this is only one passage that gives attention to the end of this world. We dare not build a theology on the basis of this one passage. There are several more passages to examine and we are not going to do that this morning. You should go home and read those and if you want to know what some of them are, let me know. I will point you in the right directions. That being said, I can tell you this morning that as you survey all of these different passages, these two emphases remain consistent. Be watchful for the signs because they’ll give you a clue as to where you are, but you don’t have any idea when He will return. In fact, nobody does. If they tell you otherwise, they’re lying to you. It may be an unintentional lie, but it’s a lie all the same. Preachers can say things like, “I think it will be in my lifetime,” all they want, but they’ve been saying that since the first century. Doesn’t seem to give us a lot of reason to put much stock in such predictions. The only thing even hazily dated predictions of Jesus’ return have had in common over the course of the last 2,000 years is that they have all been 100% wrong. No one knows. Period.

But then what do we do with all the signs? We pay attention to them and live ready. But living ready all the time is hard! Yeah, it is. We’re good in spurts and starts. You’ve perhaps experienced that. You got all fired up for the Lord and dug harder into your Bible and prayer and involvement in the church and sharing your faith with others…but then time passed. Maybe you hit a period of persecution—that’s one thing, by the way, Jesus absolutely guarantees we’ll face as His followers in this chapter—or it just got tiring putting that much energy and effort into doing your faith and you started to slack off. Pretty soon you were back to living like you normally do. You’re unquestionably committed to Jesus in the big picture, but in the little ones you live in on a daily basis, there’s not quite as much emphasis behind the effort.

That’s why Jesus—and the rest of the New Testament authors—give us both of these emphases over and over again. Pay attention to the signs because Jesus is coming back. Don’t let yourself have any doubt in that fact. Things will get crazy the closer we get to the end. Well, things are crazy now, right? But then, they’ve been crazy for a very, very long time. Does this mean we’re near the end? Is Jesus coming soon? We don’t know. That’s the other emphasis. We don’t know. Nobody knows. Pay attention to the signs, but we don’t know. So, what does that mean? It means we’ve got to be ready all the time. This isn’t always—or even often—easy, but it’s a whole lot better than the surprise being a bad one. As Jesus said just a bit later in v. 46: “Blessed is that servant whom the master finds doing his job when he comes.”

While there is much more to think about and talk through when it comes to the doctrine of the end times, if we can get these two truths down in our minds, hearts, and lives, much of the rest will cease to matter all that much: Jesus will return one day. Our job is to live ready now. Jesus will return one day so live ready now. We don’t know when that will be, but we know with confidence that it will be. If it happens within our lifetimes, praise the Lord—although that means we had better be prepared for a decidedly rough road ahead of us. But if it doesn’t happen within our lifetimes, praise the Lord all the same. By living our lives ready for the day, we will also be living our lives ready to see Him before the day. Our task doesn’t change, and we win either way. Jesus will return one day so live ready now. Spread the word: Jesus will return one day so live ready now.

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