Weather has always fascinated people. Men and women observe the clouds, often noticing the subtleties of shade and color, and they easily discern the changing weather patterns.
When growing up in South Texas, I had plenty of time while driving a tractor on my father's farm to watch weather patterns and even to fancy myself an amateur meteorologist. Keeping a watch on the weather seems natural to many of us.
Nearly two millennia ago Jesus Christ commented on this same predisposition: "When evening comes, you say, 'It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,' and in the morning, 'Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.' You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times" (Matthew 16:2-3, New International Version, emphasis added throughout).
What was Jesus' point? It was simply that our innate human desire to observe and analyze weather conditions ought to tell us something: that we can also observe and discern the signs of the times.
Storms building and dispersing
One thing about Texas weather I noticed was that sometimes the sky and the weather report both called for severe thunderstorms that never happened. The signs were there. The black, threatening cumulus clouds abounded. The sky was dark, and one could almost feel a rainstorm in the air. But the clouds dispersed, and the predicted storm failed to develop. Unseen factors had altered the conditions.
Studious men and women sometimes look into their Bibles and correlate prophecies with trends on the international landscape. To them conditions can appear as if the end of the age is upon us.
But then the symptoms slip into remission, and the war clouds (or whatever signals seem obvious) dissipate. This happened during World War II when for a time Nazi armies seemed on the brink of fulfilling end-time prophecies concerning Europe and the Middle East. But conditions abruptly changed. The crisis passed.
Today's literal tempests or socio-political storms are rather easy to identify. The Cold War may be history, but many of the former U.S.S.R.'s nuclear weapons still exist. Though in a weak economic state, Russia remains well armed. Said an American policy maker, Sen. Jon L. Kyl, in a speech at the New Atlantic Initiative conference in Prague in May 1995, "If the Soviet Union is no more, then why do we need to spend billions more on defense-for example, in weapons research, long-range bombers or missile defense?" But Henry Kissinger, writing in Newsweek in June of 1996, reminds us that "Russia possesses 20,000 nuclear weapons."
Armed to the teeth
The wielding of weapons is not a problem just among nations. Terrorist groups operating inside the boundaries of countries constitute a major civil concern because they exist outside the law and are generally armed to the teeth.
Researchers frequently discover new and better farming methods, but population growth still careens out of control in many countries least able to support such increases. Some are concerned that the earth houses far too many people in terms of our current track record in mastering global resources and world distribution. Said The Times (London) June 17: "A ballooning world population is taking such a heavy toll of the planet's resources that it is putting the survival of humankind in jeopardy, according to a group of international experts."
Concerning the environment, Professor David King describes the box canyon we have gullibly sauntered into: "The West is destroying the ecological systems upon which its economic life depends. We are in a difficult position, forced to choose between the short-term interests of an economy that sustains us and the well-being of the natural world that will be needed in future to sustain us" (The Crisis of Our Time, Susquehanna University Press, Selingsgrove, 1988, p. 215).
What is missing to solve our dilemma is the wisdom and understanding to be found in the Bible, even though a few secular forecasters do not hesitate to draw upon the perspective of Holy Scriptures.
Wrote William Rees-Mogg: "The book of Genesis tells the story of Joseph. By listening to Joseph's hint, the [Egyptian] Pharaoh rightly anticipated the seven lean years that followed seven years of plenty. From that date to this, it has always been true that the future belonged to those who prepared for it" (The Great Reckoning, Sidgwick & Johnson, London, 1992, p. 35).
But how can you properly prepare unless you know in advance what is coming? This is where the Scriptures come in. Throughout the Bible we find a prophetic theme, in Old Testament and New. An unbroken thread of prophecy runs through the Scriptures from the first book to the last.
A time of great crisis
The Bible specifically warns us that an unprecedented time of universal distress is coming on planet earth. This period of world-jarring chaos is spoken of in several biblical books, written at various times by different authors.
Consider the book of Daniel (ca. 535 B.C.), written by a great prophet of God who was in effect prime minister under kings spanning two governments ruling much of the then-known world.
Daniel 11 begins one of the longest, most detailed prophecies in the Bible. It commences with the first year of Darius the Mede, first monarch of the Medo-Persian Empire, and comes down to "the time of the end" (verses 1-40). The remainder of that chapter centers on a great power struggle in the Middle East.
The first verse of chapter 12 brings us to a crucial passage in this long prophecy: "At that time Michael [an archangel] shall stand up, the great prince who stands watch over the sons of your people; and there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation, even to that time."
But even before the time of Daniel, the prophet Jeremiah wrote similar words of warning. "Ask and see: Can a man bear children? Then why do I see every strong man with his hands on his stomach like a woman in labour, every face turned deathly pale? How awful that day will be! None will be like it. It will be a time of trouble for Jacob, but he will be saved out of it" (Jeremiah 30:6-7, NIV).
Until the 20th century mankind could not have grasped the awful portent of these words. Yet they are rendered even more ominous by the later warnings of Jesus Christ Himself in what came to be known as the Olivet prophecy, originally given on the Mount of Olives near Jerusalem shortly before His death.
Some find it difficult to comprehend how Jesus Christ-the Savior of mankind, the One who came to sacrifice Himself for every sinner, the One who came to bring us abundant life-could also warn us about how bad conditions would ultimately become on earth in the epicenter of this unprecedented passage.
But He did!
A trial like no other
Matthew records these fateful words from the mouth of Jesus of Nazareth-the Christ, or Messiah: "It will be a time of great distress; there has never been such a time from the beginning of the world until now, and will never be again. If that time of troubles were not cut short, no living thing could survive; but for the sake of God's chosen it will be cut short" (Matthew 24:21-22, New English Bible).
It is difficult to exaggerate the significance of this prophecy. Except for the promised divine intervention, human life would cease on earth. The most horrifyingly surreal catastrophes as depicted in movies and television programs will come to pass, to the point that life will face extinction if not for God's direct intervention to save it.
These are not our words, but the warning of Jesus Christ Himself. It is all too easy to read right over these verses and emphasize only those passages we want to hear, such as Christ's miraculous healings and promises of forgiveness, mercy and peace (Matthew 6:14; 5:7; John 14:27), as important as they are.
Christ clearly told us that we are to live by every word that comes out of the mouth of God (Matthew 4:4; Luke 4:4). We are not at liberty to ignore biblical prophecies about horrors to come. Hiding our heads in the sand is not the way to deal with future troubles. Luke's Gospel expresses this somberly worded warning by quoting Christ: "For these are the days of vengeance, that all things which are written [in the Scriptures] may be fulfilled" (Luke 21:22).
These predictions herald a time like no other in the history of our already crisis-charged world while it hurtles inevitably toward the greatest crisis of all time, the one that James Moffatt called "the crisis at the close" (Daniel 12:9, Moffatt Translation).
When will it all happen?
But when? At what time will these things occur? Christ's disciples posed the same questions: "Tell us when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?" (Matthew 24:3).
Jesus did give His followers some general indications (verses 4-35), but He pointedly avoided precision in terms of the time that would pass before these events occurred. "But of that day and hour no one knows, no, not even the angels of heaven, but my Father only" (verse 36). Later, after His resurrection, the disciples again asked Him when He would initiate a new age and the Kingdom of God would be established on earth. Christ replied, "It is not for you to know the times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority" (Acts 1:7).
Historically, many have been so anxious for the return of Jesus Christ that they have been slow to accept His own testimony. This has led to much confusion and misunderstanding of prophecy. Too often down through history have some cried wolf.
Yet these end-time prophecies remain as valid as on the days they were originally spoken and written. They will come to pass—but in God's good time.
A beginning and an end
Pulitzer Prize-winner and professor of astronomy at Cornell University Carl Sagan wrote: "There was once a time before the sun and earth existed, a time before there was day or night, long, long before there was anyone to record the beginning for those who might come after" (Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Century, London, 1992, p. 11).
"Before time began" was the way the apostle Paul put it (2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 1:2). It is, however, enormously difficult for a person to imagine such a time, a period before the creation itself. Yet some scientists, and most important your Bible, speak of it as a surety.
Almost equally hard for humanity to grasp is the future laid out in the last four chapters of the Bible's final book, Revelation. But a beginning leads to an end. A start leads to a finish. History can be described as linear in nature. From this perspective time does march on.
Our personal world can seem so permanent. We get up in the morning, and the sun is rising as usual. We still have a home, we drive our familiar route to work, we get absorbed in the day's routine, and life goes on as it always has.
All this, however, is not forever. We know, in moments of reflection, that our lives are not permanent. They will all come to an end, and "the living know that they shall die," wrote King Solomon (Ecclesiastes 9:5).
Bible prophecies are sure
In the same way, fulfillment of biblical prophecies is sure. God is the Sovereign of the universe and possesses the will and power to carry out what He says will happen: "I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please" (Isaiah 46:9-10, NIV).
World conditions seem bad enough. The plight of humanity gets worse. Just watch the news on television or take a good daily newspaper. Occasionally read the kind of books mentioned in "A World in Perpetual Crisis". They will help open your eyes to our afflictions as the 20th century draws to a close.
What lies beyond these great troubles should motivate us. After describing some of the many traumas that will come to pass, Jesus Christ said, "When these things begin to happen, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near . . . So you also, when you see these things happening, know that the kingdom of God is near" (Luke 21:28, 31).
The book of Daniel ends its long Middle East prophecy of chapter 11 with these strong words of assurance and encouragement: "And at that time your people shall be delivered, every one who is found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament, and those who turn many to righteousness like the stars forever and ever" (Daniel 12:1-3).
A call to true repentance
Why does it sometimes appear that the curtain is about to come down on the world stage—and then conditions rapidly change and it simply doesn't fall? For centuries people have simply misread and misunderstood biblical prophecies concerning the time of the end. Leaders have arisen who have confidently predicted specific events, only to see the specified dates come and go with nothing changed.
Another perspective on this subject is important to God, but not understood by most people. That is the spiritual dimension. The apostle Peter's words sum up God's concerns in dealing with humanity and carrying out His purpose: "The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9, NIV).
Repentance is an important aspect of the great commission given by Jesus Christ to His followers as recorded in Matthew 24:14 and 28:18-20. Luke mentions specifically that "repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem" (Luke 24:47, NIV).
Christ told His followers that a work will be done on earth—a message of both warning and hope to go out to a spiritually sick and chaotic world, proclaiming in full power the gospel of God's coming Kingdom. God wants many to be turned to righteousness, to experience genuine repentance. This is a vital part of this great commission!