Seeking Signs of the End Times

When will the end come? I see so many things—especially in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, social upheaval, and cultural unrest—by which people are trying to discern the times with the end of times in view. Lately, I have seen statements like, “God is preparing us for the rapture while Satan is preparing us for the antichrist,” “Look at all these signs! The end must be drawing so near. People better get their acts together.” Popular teachers like David Jeremiah even make a living describing what they believe the signs of the times to be—trying to show how current world events match what they believe to be last-days prophecy in the Bible. I wonder what Jesus teaches about seeking after signs? What signs are given for us? At what point to even well-meaning people waste their time by searching for signs and wonders?

Matthew 16:1-4

The Pharisees and Sadducees came up, and testing Jesus, they asked Him to show them a sign from heaven.

But He replied to them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘There will be a storm today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ Do you know how to discern the appearance of the sky, but cannot discern the signs of the times? An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign; and a sign will not be given it, except the sign of Jonah.” And He left them and went away.

A sign from heaven (v. 1)

The Pharisees and Sadducees came up, and testing Jesus, they asked Him to show them a sign from heaven.

Jesus is a strict biblicist. He spent His bodily ministry on this earth defending and explaining the Old Testament Law and Prophets (Cf. 15:3-9). Jesus has shown the Old Testament proof that He is the Jewish Messiah by taking the infirmities of the Jewish people through His healing ministry (Cf. 8:17). Through Matthew’s Gospel account, some of the Jewish religious elite (scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees) have been trying to trap Jesus by testing Him with questions and requests. Here, they test Jesus again by asking for a different type of sign—a sign from heaven. Jesus has succeeded in healing the infirmities of the Jewish nation. So, let’s request something Jesus hasn’t done yet. Give us a sign that the kingdom of heaven is really at hand. Open up the clouds. Shake the foundations of the earth. We can’t disprove you as the Messiah, so we will disprove the times you claim are at hand. Show us the signs! Matthew, so far, has addressed three arguments against Jesus of Nazareth’s identity as the Jewish Messiah: (1) the argument from origin (Jesus was from Nazareth and couldn’t possibly be the promised one from Judea), (2) the argument from the Law (Jesus broke the tradition of the elders and so broke the Law), and (3) the argument from the Messianic prophecies (Jesus doesn’t fulfill the Messianic prophecies). Now, after successfully debunking those arguments, Matthew addresses a fourth argument—the argument from the eschatological (end-times) prophecies.

In contrast to previously listing the scribes and Pharisees or the Pharisees by themselves, Matthew now lists the Pharisees and Sadducees alongside each other. These two theological parties disagreed primarily in their eschatology. The Pharisees believed there would be a resurrection from the dead and the Sadducees did not. Instead of merely asking for a sign, they ask for a sign from heaven. They understood that, if the kingdom of heaven was really at hand, it would be accompanied by the signs of kingdom-coming. Are there any signs from heaven listed in the Old Testament? Yes, there are:

Confusion in Last BattleEzekiel 38:21; Zechariah 12:4; 14:13
7 Years or 3.5 YearsDaniel 7:25; 9:27; 12:7
CorpsesIsaiah 34:3; Ezekiel 39:11-20; Joel 2:20
Men Killed By FireIsaiah 13:8,12; 24:6; 33:14; 34:9; 51:6; 65:15,16; Ezekiel 38:22; 39:6; Zechariah 14:12; Malachi 4:1
HailstonesEzekiel 38:22
EarthquakesIsaiah 24:18-20; Ezekiel 38:19,20; Joel 2:10(?); 3:16; Amos 9:5; Zechariah 14:4
Regathering of IsraelEzekiel 37
All Nations Gathered to WarIsaiah 13:4; 66:18; Zechariah 12:1-4; 14:2
Jewish RevivalEzekiel 37:9-14; Zechariah 12:10-14; 13:1-9
Abomination of DesolationDaniel 9:27; 12:11
Second AdventEzekiel 39:21; Daniel 2:44; 7:13,14; Zechariah 14:4; Malachi 2:1-3
The Beast, or AntichristIsaiah 14:12-15; Daniel 7:8, 24; 8:19, 26; 9:26, 27; 11:36ff; Zechariah 11:15-17
10 NationsDaniel 2:42,44; 7:24
Kings of EastDaniel 11:44
Kings of SouthEzekiel 38:5; Daniel 11:40
Kings of NorthEzekiel 38:15ff; 39:2; Daniel 11:40; Joel 2:20
Signs in SkyIsaiah 13:10; 24:23; Joel 2:10,30; 3:15; Zechariah 14:6,7
Remnant SavedJoel 2:12, 17; 3:32; Amos 9:8; Zechariah 13:8,9; 14:2,5
Chart taken from *I am not, here, trying to explain these signs because Jesus doesn’t do so at this juncture in the story.

These are the same signs Jesus will describe in Matthew 24 and John will describe in the book of Revelation. These first four verses in Matthew 16, then, mean much for our interpretation of the Bible’s eschatological texts. If these signs don’t accompany Jesus, then Jesus’s message is false and the kingdom of heaven is, in fact, not at hand. Many non-messianic Jews and atheists today use this same argument as a proof that the Christian worldview is a false one. Most Christians believe these signs did not accompany Jesus and are withheld for a later catastrophic event. If Christ’s kingdom is at hand and Jesus is truly the one bringing the kingdom of God to the earth, the Old Testament describes these necessary accompanying signs. There is no indication of split fulfillment; Part of a prophecy will be fulfilled in the Messiah’s first coming and part of it in His second coming. In fact, there is no indication that there will be two separate comings of the Messiah in the Old Testament—only that the Messiah will come and establish God’s kingdom on earth forever. This does not negate dual fulfillment; The prophecy will be fulfilled wholly on more than one occasion. It also does not negate the already, not yet view of God’s coming kingdom; In fact, it validates an already, not yet view. It also does not negate the claim that the Messiah will appear physically at the beginning of God’s kingdom coming to earth and again when His kingdom has finished descending to the earth. That, I think, is what is usually meant when Christians talk about Christ’s first and second coming.

Because a majority of Christians today have not thought prayerfully and critically about their eschatology, non-messianic Jews and atheists alike forward the same argument against the Christian worldview. If Jesus really was the Jewish Messiah and savior of the whole world, would not all of these things you consider to be future have already happened because the Bible said it would? If they have not, we neither have reason to believe that Jesus was really the Messiah nor that the Bible (particularly the New Testament) is accurate. This is a problem because people have tried to force the New Testament to fit their own end-times doctrine rather than conform their end-times doctrine to what the New Testament authors intended to convey. As a result, they do not see the work Christ is doing now—their whole view of Christ’s person and work is skewed because their eschatology is incoherent and inconsistent with the Bible’s claims.

The Pharisees and Sadducees test Jesus. Prove, now, that the kingdom of heaven is really at hand like you claim it is.

The reply from heaven (v. 2-4)

But He replied to them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘There will be a storm today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ Do you know how to discern the appearance of the sky, but cannot discern the signs of the times?” 

Jesus basically told the Pharisees and Sadducees to look around, pay attention to what’s going on. Jesus illustrates the coming of the kingdom of Heaven using meteorological language. When a storm is coming, the sky is different and the air smells wonderfully moist. Jesus does not explain away those signs. He does not explain away the claims of the Prophets by saying, “Oh, that won’t happen until my separate second coming.” Instead, He insinuates that if the Pharisees and Sadducees opened their eyes, they would see the perfect eschatological storm brewing. Jesus does not disagree with the Pharisees and Sadducees concerning the timing of the signs—they will appear at this time, the kingdom of heaven really is at hand; Pay attention. Indeed, the signs will appear in Christ’s crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. The remnant of Israel will be gathered in Christ at that time. The Gospel will go out from the Jews to the nations. The kingdom of heaven is at hand and will continue to come until it overtakes the whole earth (Cf. 13:31-35).

“An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign; and a sign will not be given it, except the sign of Jonah.” And He left them and went away.

Jesus insinuated that the Pharisees and Sadducees should pay attention. Now, He tells them an evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign. Does that seem odd to you? It does to me. Because they were seeking to see the prophetic end-times signs fulfilled a certain way, they missed the signs that were actually being fulfilled. In our own day, many people are doing the same thing. The historicist looks for how the signs might be being displayed in our own time to show how close Christ’s second coming may be. The futurist looks for how the signs may be displayed in the future to predict the nearness of Christ’s wrath and second coming. In doing this, they miss entirely that the signs did accompany the coming of God’s kingdom. It is evil and adulterous because we are seeking a kingdom yet to come rather than the kingdom of heaven which was at hand in Jesus’s incarnation, still at hand today, and will be at hand as it comes in its fullness to the earth. So, it is not evil or adulterous to seek supernatural healing, which was in view in the previous passage, but to seek heavenly signs concerning a future coming of God’s kingdom to the earth.

Jesus continues, “…a sign will not be given it…” Jesus will not pull back the heavenly curtains and reveal signs from heaven to prove that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Instead, He focusses the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ attention on the Scriptures, “…except the sign of Jonah.” If people are seeking signs, they are not seeking first God’s kingdom and righteousness (Cf. 6:33). Signs and wonders are not God’s revelation; Scripture is. Neither human tradition or precepts (Cf. 15:1-20) nor heavenly signs and wonders are authoritative for the Christian; Scripture is entirely sufficient. Sola Scriptura. Go read your Bibles. Sit under correct biblical teaching. Strive to understand the Bible. Jesus is a strict biblicist. It’s His word. 

What is the sign of Jonah? Jesus does not say. Neither should we try to guess and develop doctrine out of our own speculation. He does not qualify. He ‘drops the mic,’ so to speak, and walks away. Jonah is only 4 chapters. Go read it. Jonah,

  1. was sent to Nineveh to call the Ninevites to repentance,
  2. fled from God’s plan,
  3. was in the belly of the fish, a place he called Sheol, for three days,
  4. repented and was released,
  5. called the Nenevites to repentance, and
  6. witnessed God bring the Ninevites to repentance—causing His wrath to pass over them even though Jonah himself looked for a wrathful sign from heaven against them.

There are a few signs in Jonah which parallel Christ’s ministry. 1) Jesus’s body would be dead and in Sheol, here to mean the grave, until the third day. 2) Jesus’s message of repentance will go to the nations after His resurrection. 3) People will continue to look for signs from heaven even though God’s kingdom is coming and His work is being done in the present-tense—visible in the repentance of the nations and God’s wrath passing over those who repent. The eschatological signs foretold by the Prophets will be present during Jesus’s bodily ministry, but they wont be so destructive as people assume. Much like Jonah, people miss God’s work because they are focussed on seeing what they want to see. Like Jonah, no sign will be given to them except the Scriptures, which describe the person and work of God.

When it comes to our own tendency to seek signs of the times, we should pay close attention to Jesus’s teaching here. God’s kingdom is really at hand. It is a present kingdom that started visibly coming down to the earth at the Messiah’s incarnation in the First Century AD after God’s preparation through the Jews. Repent. The kingdom of heaven is at hand.

Jesus’s Identity According to Matthew 14-17:

Who Jesus is:Who Jesus is not:
The expected Messiah (Isaiah 35:4-5; 61:1-2):
The one who would heal His people, take their infirmities, raise the dead, and restore justice to the earth.
John the Baptist; the new Elijah (Cf. Malachi 4:5-6):
Not merely a prophet, teacher, or good person.
Compassionate provider; Israel’s Messiah (Cf. Exodus 3:6-9; 34:6; Psalm 78:38-39; 2 Kings 13:23; Isaiah 14:1; 49:13; Lamentations 3:32; Zechariah 10:6).Not merely  an inspirational figure or brilliant strategist. Not limited by human means.
The Son of God; the king who perpetually sits on the Messiah’s throne prepared through King David (2 Samuel 7:14-17; see also Proverbs 30:4; Isaiah 7:14; 9:6-7; Daniel 3:25; Micah 5:1-3 concerning the “Son of God” motif in the Old Testament). Israel’s deliverer.Not a wish-granter or halfway savior.
The one who upholds God’s Law and justifies the Father’s people from the inside out (Cf. Genesis 49:10; Isaiah 29:13-14; Jeremiah 23:5).Not the one who abolishes God’s Law according to people’s preferences, traditions, or philosophies (Cf. Matthew 5:17).
The one who engages and uproots false teachers, churches, and religions in His own perfect timing.Not the one who instructs his people to attract the world into the church no matter the cost or hunt down false teachers and their ministries.
The one who came to the lost sheep of Israel and through whom the nations of the world are blessed (Genesis 12; 15; 22).Not the one who condemns people based on religious ritual, standards, or traditions (outward acts).
The one who takes the infirmities of His people (Isaiah 53:4) and who makes provision for those who glorify the Father with their whole lives.Not a slot machine for people to use for their own glory or exaltation by putting in time, money, or self-righteous works.
The one who upholds God’s Prophets and focusses attention on Scripture rather than on signs of the times.Not a showman who idolatrizes the miraculous.

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