SIGNS OF THE APPROACHING END
OUR SAVIOUR'S GREAT PROPHECY
Christ had spoken of the coming desolation of the sacred temple at Jerusalem. The disciples were astonished. "Master, see," said one, "what manner of stones and what buildings are here!" The Saviour replied:
"Seest thou these great buildings? there shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down" Mark 13:2.
"What Shall be the Sign?"
As soon as they were alone on the Mount of Olives overlooking the city, the disciples came to Jesus, saying:
"Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of Thy coming, and of the end of the world?" Matt. 24:3.
Replying to this question, the Saviour spoke first of the fall of Jerusalem; He foretold in a sentence the experiences of His church through dark ages to follow; then He described the events of the latter days, the signs showing His second advent near at hand; and, finally, He pictured the scenes of His own glorious appearing in the clouds of heaven. The fullest record of the discourse is found in the twenty-fourth chapter of Matthew.
A Striking Parallel
The first portion of the prophetic discourse (verses 4-14) deals with general conditions that were to prevail both in the last days of the Jewish state, and on a yet larger scale in the course of history leading to the last days of the world. There was so close a parallel between these times that Christ, in one description, answered both questions asked, When shall these things come upon Jerusalem? and, What shall be the signs of the end of the world?
The prophetic word foretold the rise of false Christs, the coming of wars, famines, and earthquakes in "divers places." The believers saw these things fulfilled in that generation before Jerusalem fell; but as we read the prophecy, we see the wider application and yet larger fulfilment through the course of history since that day, these calamities increasing in the earth as the end draws near. Before the end of the Jewish state, the believers carried the gospel to all the known world of their day. (See Col. 1:23.) In these latter days we are seeing the yet wider proclamation of the gospel, as foretold in the fourteenth verse, "This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come."
The Last Days of Jerusalem
We may note briefly some of the events of Jerusalem's last days. Christ had forewarned the believers:
"Take heed that no man deceive you. For many shall come in My name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many."
Having rejected the true Christ, the nation was open to deception by the false. We catch just a glimpse of the fulfilment in the book of Acts; in secular history the full story is told. Ridpath says:
"Never was a people so turbulent, so excited with expectation of a deliverer who should restore the ancient kingdom, so fired with bigotry and fanaticism, as were the wretched Jews of this period. One Christ came after another. Revolt was succeeded by revolt, instigated by some pseudo-prophet or pretended king."—"History of the World," Vol. I, p. 849 (Part III, chap. 19).
During the Saviour's life and ministry a divine hand had to a great extent held the elements of violence in check, but as the light was rejected more and more, the spirit of evil came to hold sway unrestrained. Dr. Mears well describes the changed conditions in these words:
"The narrative of the evangelists presents a tranquil scene, a succession of attractive pictures, in striking contrast to the bloody and tumultuous events which crowd each other in the pages of Josephus."—"From Exile to Overthrow," pp. 256, 257.
Thus the events led rapidly on toward the day of Jerusalem's fall, so long foretold by the prophets.
The Sign to the Believers
The disciples had asked for a sign, and Christ gave them a token by which they might know when the time to flee from Jerusalem had come. Here Luke's Gospel gives the fullest record:
"When ye shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that the desolation thereof is nigh. Then let them which are in Judea flee to the mountains; and let them which are in the midst of it depart out; and let not them that are in the countries enter thereinto. For these be the days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled." Luke 21:20-22.
The unbelieving in Jerusalem and Judea could not conceive that their city, so long protected and favored of God, could be destroyed. Not even the appearance of the Roman armies could shake their blind self-confidence. But at the first sight of the encircling armies, the Christians knew that the time for flight was at hand. But how to flee was the question, with the compassing lines drawn close about the city. Moreover, the Zealots, the furious war party in power, would be little likely to allow any number to pass out to the Roman forces.
Just here God's providence made a way of escape. Cestius, the Roman commander, after having partially undermined one of the temple walls, suddenly decided to defer pushing the attack. "He retired from the city," says Josephus, "without any reason in the world." (See "Wars," book 2, chap. 19.) And the Zealots flew out after the retiring Romans, furiously attacking the rear guards.
Then those watching Christians knew that the time for quick flight had come, according to Christ's prophecy uttered many years before. They fled out of the city and out of the country round about.
Through all the years, Christ's prophecy had exhorted them, "Pray ye that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the Sabbath day." Matt. 24:20. The prayer was answered, for it was in the autumn and on a week day that the flight was made.[B] Watching for the sign, and instantly obeying, they were delivered.
Thus it was that when the Romans returned later to the siege, never to give up till the city fell, none of the Christians were overwhelmed in its destruction. Even so are we to watch the signs of our own times, that we may escape those things that are coming upon the earth, and be ready to "stand before the Son of man."
The Prophetic Word Fulfilled
Christ had declared that the temple, the pride of the nation, would be utterly destroyed. In the last siege, the Roman commander tried to spare the magnificent pile. When the Jews made it their chief fortress, because of its massive strength, Titus remonstrated with them, saying:
"If you will but change the place whereon you fight, no Roman shall either come near your sanctuary, or offer any affront to it; nay, I will endeavor to preserve you your holy house, whether you will or not."—Josephus, "Wars of the Jews," book 6, chap. 2.
But the prophecy was fulfilled to the letter. The people seemed possessed with fury. The hardened Roman pagans were astonished at their suicidal rashness. Titus's efforts to save the temple failed, and it went down in ruin, as Christ had foretold.
The disciples of Christ had called His attention to the immense blocks of stone that composed the temple walls. "See, what manner of stones," one said. When Titus examined these same stones, after the fall of the city, he is said to have declared:
"We have certainly had God for our assistant in this war, and it was no other than God who ejected the Jews out of these fortifications."[C]—Id., book 6, chap. 9.
Rather, we would say, in the light of Scripture teaching, the destruction that came upon the city was but the fruit of its own way. God's guardian care had long protected the city of David. When His protection was finally thrust aside and the people put themselves in the power of the great destroyer, divine justice could no longer save the city from the judgments that were bound to fall upon persistent transgression against light.
The lesson is one of those written "for our admonition upon whom the ends of the world are come." Jerusalem, in that generation of great light and high privilege, fell because it knew not the time of its visitation. Still Christ's sad lament bears its warning to the ears of men: "If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace!" Luke 19:42.
Having foretold the destruction of Jerusalem, and given to the believers signs by which they might find deliverance in the day of its overthrow, Christ yet more fully answered the second part of the disciples' question, "What shall be the sign of Thy coming, and of the end of the world?" Matt. 24:3.
The Period of Tribulation
Quickly He passed to the events of the latter days. But first He sketched, in a few words, the tribulations through which His church was to pass during the intervening centuries. Daniel the prophet had written of this experience, foretelling the long period during which the papal power was to "wear out the saints of the Most High." Dan. 7:25. Of these times, Christ said in His prophetic discourse:
"Then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be. And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect's sake those days shall be shortened." Matt. 24:21, 22.
It is evident that Christ referred to the time of tribulation foretold by Daniel, not to the trials attending the flight of the Christians from Jerusalem, for their flight was a deliverance of the elect from trial. However much the weak may have suffered temporarily in fleeing from their homes, the great suffering of that time came upon the unbelieving, who had no shelter.
This prophecy given by our Saviour presents the picture of a long-continued persecution of His own elect, and foretells the shortening of the allotted time. God was to intervene in some special way to save His people. And it was even so. The elect did suffer all through the centuries of intolerance, until the rise of the Reformation and the spreading abroad of God's Word broke the power of ecclesiasticism, thus shortening the days of bitter tribulation.
The End Drawing Near
According to Daniel's further prophecy, the period of trial and persecution was to reach "even to the time of the end." Dan. 11:35. Naturally, then, we should look for the signs of the latter days to begin to appear following these days of tribulation. And so we find the next words of Christ's discourse introducing the topic of His second coming. From now on the prophetic outline deals with events leading down to the end of the age.
First the Saviour utters a warning against false ideas concerning His second coming. That no theories of a secret coming or of a mystic coming might deceive the unwary, He says in plain words:
"If any man shall say unto you, Lo, here is Christ, or there; believe it not. For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect. Behold, I have told you before. Wherefore if they shall say unto you, Behold, He is in the desert; go not forth: behold, He is in the secret chambers; believe it not. For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be." Matt. 24:23-27.
Today we see the need of this warning. Some of the most subtle deceptions are found in the teaching that Christ has already come, secretly, or that He comes in the chamber of death, or in the spiritualistic séance. Against all these errors we are forewarned, as well as against any agencies that may come showing marvelous signs and wonders. The close of human probation, the coming of the day of God, will be as a thief in the night; and Christ's coming itself will overtake the unwatchful all unprepared. Nevertheless, when He comes, "every eye shall see Him," and all the glory of heaven will burst upon a quaking world.
Signs in the Heavens and the Earth
Now the Saviour's outline of prophecy presents the signs which were to show when the coming of the Lord was near. Referring again to the days of tribulation foretold by the prophet Daniel, Christ says:
"Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken: and then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven." Matt. 24:29, 30.
In Luke's record of the same prophetic discourse, additional signs are given, describing conditions in the earth as Christ's coming draws near. His account reads:
"There shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring; men's hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken. And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh." Luke 21:25-28.
Yet again, the prophet John, in the Revelation, foretells these signs in the sun and moon and stars, as they were presented to him in a vision of the last days. But his record shows that this series of signs was to be preceded by a great earthquake. He describes the order of events as follows:
"I beheld when He had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood; and the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind." Rev. 6:12, 13.
In these scriptures four great signs of Christ's approaching advent are listed for our study, as follows:
1. The great earthquake.
2. The darkening of the sun and moon.
3. The falling of the stars.
4. Distress of nations, and other signs.
The Time When the Signs Begin
Christ's prophecy points out approximately the time when the first of the signs that He gave, the darkening of the sun, should appear,—"immediately after the tribulation of those days." And the "great earthquake" of John's vision was to precede this sign in the heavens.
The Reformation of the sixteenth century began to cut short the days of tribulation; but some countries shut out the liberalizing influences of the Word of God, and there the persecution continued.
Even as late as near the end of the seventeenth century, in 1685, France revoked the Edict of Nantes, that had granted toleration, and persecution raged as of old. The church was driven again to the desert. Speaking of the early decades of the eighteenth century, Kurtz says:
"In France the persecution of the Huguenots continued.... The 'pastors of the desert' performed their duties at the risk of their lives."—"Church History," Vol. III, p. 88.
There was severe persecution of the Moravians in Austria, in these times, many of the persecuted finding refuge in Saxony. It was in 1722 that Christian David led the first band of Moravian refugees to settle on the estates of Count Zinzendorf, who organized through them the great pioneer movement of modern missions.
But by the middle of the century, the era of enlightenment and the force of world opinion, in the good providence of God, had so permeated the Catholic states of Europe that general violent persecution had ceased. One incident will suffice as evidence of this.
The scene was in France, where alone, of all the Catholic states, there were any great numbers of Protestants. In 1762 a Huguenot of Toulouse, unjustly charged with crime, was put to torture and to death, under the pressure of the old persecuting spirit. Many Huguenots thought the persecutions of former times were reviving, and prepared to flee to Switzerland. But Voltaire took up the matter, and so wrought upon public opinion that the Paris parliament reviewed the case, and the king paid the man's family a large indemnity.
This shows that by the middle of that century the days of any general persecution had ceased. In the nature of the case, we may not point to the exact year and say, Here the days of tribulation ended.
From these times, then, we are to scan the record of history to learn if the appointed signs began to appear. As we look, we find the events recorded, following on in the order predicted:
1. The Lisbon earthquake, cf 1755.
2. The dark day, cf 1780.
3. The falling stars, cf 1833.
4. General conditions and movements betokening the end.
"There shall be signs," the Saviour said. We are to study the record of events, watching to catch the signs of the approaching end as earnestly as the mariner watches the beacon lights when he nears the longed-for haven on a dark and stormy night.
[B] It was in the autumn that the army of Cestius closed in upon Jerusalem. According to the careful record of Graetz, the Jewish historian, it was evidently on a Wednesday that the Roman army retired, pursued by all the forces of the city. This was the instant for the flight of the Christians. Next day "the Zealots, shouting exultant war songs, returned to Jerusalem (8th October)."—"History of the Jews," Vol. II, p. 268. The day before was the time for unhindered flight.
[C] Apollonius, the friend and counselor of Titus, left a similar testimony to the latter's conviction that there was something supernatural about the forces of destruction let loose upon Jerusalem: "After Titus had taken Jerusalem, and when the country all round was filled with corpses, the neighboring races offered him a crown: but he disclaimed any such honor to himself, saying that it was not he himself that had accomplished this exploit, but that he had merely lent his arms to God, who had so manifested His wrath."—Philostratus, "Life of Apollonius," book 6, chap. 29.