THE MEANING OF PRESENT-DAY CONDITIONS
"THERE SHALL BE SIGNS ... UPON THE EARTH"
From the specific signs in the heavens, which were to herald the coming of the latter days and awaken the church to look for its coming Lord, our Saviour's prophecy passed on to designate certain general conditions in the world which were to continue until the great day of God comes:
"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." Luke 21:25-27.
Among the developments here foretold, and which contribute to the "distress of nations, with perplexity," we may list the following:
1. Political Unrest—the Arming of the Nations
Following on closely with the signs in the heavens, there appears also the awakening to national aspirations and rivalries in Europe, out of which has grown the arming of the nations. The beginning of the modern race of armaments may be dated from those stirring and eventful years of 1830 to 1848. We have seen the resources of the soil and the inventive genius of man devoted to preparations for war on a scale never before thought of. The prophet Joel foretold these conditions in the last days:
"Proclaim ye this among the Gentiles ["the nations," R.V.]: Prepare war, wake up the mighty men, let all the men of war draw near; let them come up: beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears: let the weak say, I am strong.... Let the heathen be wakened.... Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision [or "cutting off"]: for the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision." Joel 3: 9-14.
Another prophecy forewarns of the "peace and safety" cry that is to be heard as the end draws near. We are told that many people in the last days will be saying that swords are to be beaten into plowshares, and that the nations will cease from war (Isa. 2:3, 4); but the actual conditions are repeatedly described in prophecy as warlike and perilous. Thus the revelator saw the closing days:
"The nations were angry, and Thy wrath is come, and the time of the dead, that they should be judged, and that Thou shouldst give reward unto Thy servants the prophets, and to the saints, and them that fear Thy name, small and great; and shouldst destroy them which destroy the earth." Rev. 11: 18.
What we see then among the nations proclaims the approaching end.
2. Signs in the Social World
A New Testament prophecy of the latter days says:
"In the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, traitors, heady, high-minded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God." 2 Tim. 3: 1-4.
The "perilous times" have come, when, as never before, the world is pleasure mad.
"Unrestrained passion for pleasure," said M. Comte, editor of the French Relèvement Social, writing just before the European war, is bringing a terrible train of evils into modern society. Along with it he put "the hunt for money without regard for means," adding:
"This is the theme which manufacturers, business men, men in the public administration, continually harp on with ever the same conviction and ever the same wealth of proof.
"The note is ever the same, and the conclusion identical: Nous sommes perdus! [We are lost!]"—Quoted in Record of Christian Work, July, 1914.
Many agencies for social and temperance reform are rendering the greatest human service; but for lost humanity the only hope is Christ, the divine Saviour. With an urgency born of the last call, His gospel is sounding to a world on the verge of eternity. Yet with divine love longing to save, the world sweeps on, less and less mindful of eternal interests. Christ's prophecy foretold it as it is:
"As the days of Noe were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark, and knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be." Matt. 24: 37-39.
Who can look out upon mankind today without the conviction that this scripture is being fulfilled? The drift is strong toward the world and away from God; but we are bidden to watch and pray, lest the coming day find us unprepared.
3. Signs in the Industrial World
Industrial conditions today add their contribution to the "distress of nations, with perplexity." Through the word of prophecy the Lord long ago foretold these conditions, with a warning to the careless rich, and a warning to the laborer and the poor, not to be drawn into contention over the things of this world, for the Judge is at the door. The prophecy, it will be seen, refers specifically to latter-day conditions.
"Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you. Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire. Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days. Behold, the hire of the laborers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of sabaoth. Ye have lived in pleasure on the earth, and been wanton; ye have nourished your hearts, as in a day of slaughter. Ye have condemned and killed the just; and he doth not resist you.
"Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain. Be ye also patient; stablish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh. Grudge not one against another, brethren, lest ye be condemned: behold, the Judge standeth before the door." James 5: 1-9.
There is no need to argue that the issues with which the prophecy deals are pressing upon the world with ever-increasing perplexity. We quote but two statements, by men not engaged in agitation, but calmly and thoughtfully setting down the signs of the times.
The late Lord Avebury (Sir John Lubbock) wrote a few years ago in the Review of Internationalism:
"The religion of Europe is not Christianity, but the worship of the god of war.... Unless something is done, the condition of the poor in Europe will grow worse and worse. It is no use shutting our eyes. Revolution may not come soon, not probably in our time, but come it will, and as sure as fate there will be an explosion such as the world has never seen."
Of the rapid growth of discontent and its propaganda, Mr. Frederick Townsend Martin, of New York, wrote:
"Fifty years ago there was scarcely a voice of protest; indeed, there was hardly anything to protest against. Twenty-five years ago the protest was clear and distinct, and we understood it. Ten years ago the protest found expression in a dozen weekly publications, but today the protest is circulated not by hundreds or thousands of printed copies of books, pamphlets, magazines, and newspapers, but actually by the million.
"This propaganda of protest has its daily papers that are distinctive and published for that purpose, and that purpose only. It has its magazines and tens of thousands of weekly papers. Only a fool sneers at such a volume of publicity as that....
"The warnings that hundreds of us are uttering may be ignored. The squandering may go on, the vulgar bacchanalia may be prolonged, the poor may have to writhe under the iron heel of the iron lord—the dance of death may go on until society's E string snaps, and then the Vesuvius of the underworld will belch forth its lava of death and destruction."—Hearst's Magazine, September, 1913.
Thus hearts grow faint "for looking after those things which are coming on the earth." But while the increasing "distress of nations, with perplexity," abounds, the Lord sends the steadying, assuring message that soon Christ will come to end the reign of sin and strife. He would have His children keep the gospel light glowing, and wait patiently for Him.
4. The Great Missionary Movement
The Saviour's prophecy of the signs of His second coming places the work of world evangelization as the culminating sign. This in itself is a joyful token of the approaching end, a bright signal of hope in a suffering world. He said:
"This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come." Matt. 24: 14.
Before the end, the light of the gospel was to shine into every dark corner of the earth. True to the sure word of prophecy, when the latter days began,—"the time of the end,"—there sprang up the great movement of modern missions which has been one of the leading characteristics of the last century. Here are a few facts showing the missionary developments of a single century:
"In 1800 the foreign missionary societies numbered seven. In 1900 they numbered over 500.
"In 1800 the income of seven societies amounted to about $50,000. In 1900 the income was over $15,000,000.
"In 1800 the number of native communicants enrolled in Protestant mission churches was 7,000. In 1900 there were 1,500,000 native communicants.
"In 1800 the adherents of Protestant churches in heathen lands were estimated at 15,000. In 1900 they numbered 3,500,000.
"In 1800 only one fifth of the human family had the Bible in languages they could read. In 1900 nine tenths of the people of the world had the Word of God in languages and dialects known to them."
Since 1900 the missionary movement has remarkably increased in extent and activity. It is estimated that now there are about 22,000 foreign missionaries in the fields, with many thousands of trained native evangelists and helpers.
The prophecy is fulfilling before our eyes. It is not the conversion of the world that Christ's words foretold, but the evangelization of the world; and when all the world has heard the gospel of the kingdom, "then shall the end come."
Another prophecy—that of Rev. 14: 6-14—shows that the closing phase of this world-wide missionary movement is to be the proclamation of the special gospel message of preparation for the coming of the Lord, calling all men to worship God and keep His commandments, and warning them against following the traditions of men that make void the Word of God.
With the coming of this generation there has come just such a message, in the rise and progress of the advent movement, the burden of the message being expressed in the very language of the prophecy—"Fear God, and give glory to Him; for the hour of His judgment is come." Rev. 14: 7. And the movement is spreading rapidly "to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people." Thus in vision the prophet on Patmes heard the message given; and when its warning cry had reached all nations, he saw Christ coming in the clouds of heaven to reap the harvest of the earth.
"Even at the Doors"
Of the beginning of the special signs of the last days, Christ said:
"When these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh." Luke 21: 28.
But of the time when these signs should all be seen fulfilled or in process of fulfilment, the Saviour said:
"Now learn a parable of the fig tree: When his branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is nigh: so likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors. Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled. Heaven and earth shall pass away, but My words shall not pass away." Matt. 24: 32-35.
In this generation we see these things. All about us the signs have appeared. We know, then, by the word that shall not pass away, that the generation has at last appeared that is to see the Saviour coming in power and great glory. "Of that day and hour knoweth no man," but we may know "that it is near, even at the doors"—the day for which the saints of God have hoped through all the ages.