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"Amillennialism 101" -- Audio and On-Line Resources
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Eschatology Q & A -- Discerning the Signs of the End

eschatology%20q%20and%20a.jpgNick asks (February 17, 2008):  

Dr. Riddlebarger:  How do we/should we discern the times without either, falling into error,(as the cults or some eschatological schemes) or becoming complacent or paranoid and so avoid deception?



Another great question.  Before I tackle it, let me just say, "OK, I know that some of you are thinking, at last, a practical question!”  Actually, I think most questions dealing with eschatology are quite practical.  But thanks Nick, for asking us to deal with a very important and practical matter.  "How do we discern the signs of the times?"

The place to start is with the biblical boundaries.  Let me say from the outset that  Jesus is crystal clear that no one knows the day and hour of his return (Matthew 24:36).  So, whenever anyone sets a date and claims to have figured out when and how Jesus will return, we can almost be certain that will be the one date upon which the Lord will not return.  (Are you getting that Harold Camping?  No, of course not).  

Yet, in the very same discourse when Jesus tells us that we cannot know when he is coming back, Jesus gives his disciples a whole list of signs of the end in response to a series of questions they have put to him.  Jesus does this to make a very important point.  

First, Jesus warns his disciples to be on guard for false teachers who will deceive the people of God.  This warning is very much like that given to the church by John regarding that series of antichrists who will come and deny that Jesus is God in human flesh (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 1:7).  The presence of false teachers is a sign of the end, and they will be present with us until Christ returns.  The very fact that Jesus warns us of this means that we cannot be complacent about orthodoxy.  The church will always be under attack from within by those who will attempt to draw followers unto themselves, and away from Christ.  In this case, the presence of the sign (false teachers), carries with it the warning to be diligent (oppose them with the truth).  

But Jesus also warns the disciples of great upheaval among the nations.  “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars.”  Furthermore, he tells us that there will be famines and earthquakes, which Jesus describes as birth pains (Matthew 24:8).  I believe that these signs of the end, which began in the lifetime of his apostles, will continue until our Lord’s return (cf., Hagner, Matthew 14-28, Word Biblical Commentary, 33B, 692).  Since Jesus speaks of these signs as birth pains, I take him to mean that there will intermittent periods of turmoil and peace and then when the tumult reaches its zenith, our Lord will suddenly return.  This means that it will be nearly impossible to figure out when Jesus will return, because a time of great tumult and distress for the people of God, might be followed by a period of great blessing.

But why would Jesus speak of those signs which precede his coming, and then in the parables of Matthew 25, tell us that his coming will be delayed (Matthew 25:5)?  Here, the implication is that Jesus’ coming is off in the distant future.  The reason is simple.  Wars and rumors of wars, famines, earthquakes, and false teachers will be present the entire time from our Lord’s death and resurrection until his Second Advent.  The signs of the end are exactly that.  When we see them, we know our Lord will return.  But as Jesus told his disciples, “
the bridegroom was delayed,” so that God’s people must keep watch (Matthew 25:5; 13), because they do not know the day or the hour of our Lord’s return.

In other words, the signs of the end are the guarantee that our Lord will come again.  But these signs are like birth pains, so there will be alternating times of trouble and peace, increasing in intensity before the end.  Our inability to know when the Lord will return becomes the incentive to watch and wait in expectation.  The tension between signs which precede our Lord’s return and the suddenness of his coming is certainly deliberate.  Our Lord’s warning to keep watch means that we cannot set dates, and the signs of the end warn us not to be idle before that day comes.  There is much to do.  As Luther once said, “even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”

Adding to Jesus’ teaching on this, we have Paul’s discussion of the mysterious man of sin in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12.  Paul speaks of a principle of evil which was already present when he wrote this epistle (vv. 6-7).  Paul also speaks of a mysterious restrainer, who keeps this evil in check until being taken out of the way (v. 7) when the end is finally at hand (v. 8).  At that point, the man of sin (whose appearance is tied to a great apostasy, v. 3), is revealed, so that he might be destroyed on the day of judgment.  This passage is very similar to what John describes in verses 7-10, of Revelation 20.  When Satan is released from the abyss, the nations are again deceived, and then revolt against Christ and his church, only to be destroyed at the Lord’s coming.

All of that is to say, the signs may all be present, but God’s time for Christ to return is not yet.  Remember, the entire Reformed tradition saw in the papacy and in the geo-political events of the late sixteenth-early seventeenth century, all of the signs of the end.  They were right.  All the signs were there!  But the preaching of the gospel (the restraining power) kept Rome in check, and after the days of Cromwell and the restoration of the Stuart monarchy, the gospel flourished for a time and postmillennial expectations became commonplace.  

That is why we must be very careful to keep the proper perspective on these things.  When we identify the signs of the end, we have every reason to hope that our redemption draws nigh.  But with Luther, we plant that apple tree knowing that only our Father in heaven knows the date of Jesus’ return!

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