Signs in our times

“Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door.” Matthew 24:32-33
Jesus once criticised a crowd, who could interpret the signs of their weather (take note of that!), but had not grasped what God was doing in their ‘present time’, right before their eyes (Luke 12:54-56). When teaching his disciples about his return, he instructed them to “keep watch” for the signs of his coming. The literal meaning of “keep watch” is to stay awake, like someone guarding a house against thieves through the long hours of the night (Matthew 24:42-44). We are to remain alert to what is happening in the spiritual realm, even as most around us are totally ignorant of this (24:36-41, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-6).

We do not know when Jesus will return, but he has given us signs to watch out for. Modern day parcel tracking provides a helpful analogy. When I order an item online, I rarely know the day or hour on which it will be delivered, but a series of messages keeps me updated on progress. The parcel has left the warehouse. It has arrived at the delivery centre. It is with the agent who will deliver it. By this point, I should know the day on which it will be delivered and may even have a time slot for when it will reach my door.

Matthew 24 gives us our foundational teaching on the signs of Jesus’ return (1) . However, Jesus starts with three things that are not signs as such: false Messiahs and prophets; wars, famines and earthquakes; and persecution. He knows that his disciples will encounter all these and may think they herald his return. This will continue through every generation. Jesus’ concern is that his followers are not deceived (24:4), not alarmed (24:6) and that they ”stand firm to the end” despite persecution and “the increase of wickedness” (24:12-13). Meanwhile, we should maintain our focus on the great commission that Jesus has given us: to make disciples amongst all people groups on earth. He will not return until this task is finished (24:14, 2 Peter 3:8-12, Revelation 7:9).

The Joshua Project ( gathers data and insight from multiple mission organisations, so as to track progress towards this goal. Their best estimate is that around 40% of the world’s population still belong to people groups where the church is too small to take the ‘gospel of the kingdom’ to the group as a whole. There is plenty of work still to be done! On the other hand, while international missionary activity declines within the UK church, the global church is mobilising as never before to get the task finished. And, as if to wake us up, the Lord is bringing to our shores thousands of people from the very unreached groups that we should be focused on (Acts 17:26-27).

Progress in taking the gospel to every people group on earth is our best long-run indicator of progress towards Jesus’ return. However, ultimately only God himself will decide when all peoples have had a fair chance to hear the good news of salvation through his Son. So, how will we know when the task is completed? The answer comes in Matthew 24:15: God will give us a very visible sign. Suddenly the focus zooms in from the global to Jerusalem and we will “see, standing in the Holy Place” – that is, a rebuilt temple (Acts 6:12-14, 21:27-28, Revelation 11:1-2) – some symbol of pagan worship that will desecrate it. A type or shadow of this final desecration came in 168 BC when Seleucid Emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes entered Jerusalem, slaughtered pigs on the altar in the temple and erected a statue to Zeus in its place. These events had been foretold in great detail through the prophet Daniel (Daniel 11:21-32), who also foretold a very similar set of events at ‘the time of the end’ (Daniel 11:36-45). Jesus tells us that, if we want to know the events immediately surrounding his return, we should study these prophecies of Daniel (Matthew 24:15).

Why Jerusalem? All the great Old Testament festivals (Passover, Weeks/Pentecost, Tabernacles) were celebrated in Jerusalem and find their New Testament fulfilment in Jerusalem. The one we are still waiting for is Tabernacles, which comes at the end of the harvest. Jesus stresses the significance of the gospel being preached as “a testimony to all nations” (Matthew 24:14). When this occurs, ‘the full number of the Gentiles’ will have come in and God will then turn to fulfil his ancient promises for the salvation of Israel (Romans 11:25-26).

This will happen at a time of great trial for Israel (Matthew 24:15-28, Daniel 12:1). In God’s wisdom, he knows that only a time of great trial will cause his historically proud and stubborn people to call on him for help (Romans 9:11). Even at the final hour, when God sends his two witnesses to prepare the hearts of the people of Jerusalem, they will initially be rejected just as Jesus was (Revelation 11:1-13). However, the political military leader - whom the Bible calls the beast (Revelation 16:12-16, 17:8-14), man of lawlessness (2 Thessalonians 2:3-4) or antichrist (1 John 2:18) - will assemble a coalition of armies to attack Israel and capture Jerusalem (Zechariah 12-14). Isolated and overwhelmed, the people of Israel will finally call on the name of the Lord as their only remaining hope (Zechariah 12:10, Romans 10:13). God’s answer will be to send Jesus (Matthew 24:29-30), who will only need to speak for the armies of the antichrist to be routed (Revelation 19:11-21). Jesus will then send his angels to gather his faithful followers from across the earth, to join with those previously departed, in preparation for his reign as king (Matthew 24:31, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17).

These events at the end will happen very quickly – “like a flood” (Daniel 9:26, Matthew 24:36-41). The antichrist will sign a treaty with Israel just seven years before Jesus returns (Daniel 9:27). I expect this to follow a huge crisis in the Middle East, encouraging people to think that the danger is now past (1 Thessalonians 5:3). The two witnesses will know better and will conduct their prophetic ministry for three and a half years (Revelation 11:3). Then the antichrist will renege on his agreement with Israel and will instead attack Jerusalem, capturing both the witnesses and the temple (Daniel 9:27, Revelation 11:7). The resulting time of distress will also last for three and a half years (Daniel 12:6-7). Returning to our analogy of the parcel tracking, this is the final message that gives us not just the date, but also the delivery slot. If we are asleep at this point, it is probably too late (Matthew 25:1-13).

So, alongside our best efforts to track progress on the preaching of the gospel to all nations, do we have any other signs that the end is approaching? The return of Israel to the land God promised them was a prerequisite for much of what I have just described. I believe it should encourage us in our keeping watch. The current crisis around Gaza should also focus our minds. At present Israel is neither isolated nor overwhelmed. They have allies and a technological advantage, and the rest of the Middle East will not unite behind Iran. My personal belief is that the antichrist will not arise from Iran (Persia), but from whichever power replaces it as the dominant force within the region (Daniel 11:2-4). However, as Israel has responded in a disproportionate way to last year’s Hamas attacks, we see strains emerging in relationships with their key allies, along with widespread anger that will gradually build support for a regional military coalition against them.

There is also one major sign in the book of Revelation that I believe we should be paying great attention to. It takes us back to Jesus’ comment about the weather. The middle chapters of the book of Revelation are structured around seven seals, seven trumpets and seven bowls. Each seven has an internal structure that starts with a set of four defining features of the era and ends at the final crisis leading to Jesus’ return. The opening of the final seal leads to the sounding of the seven trumpets (Revelation 8:1-2) and the sounding of the seventh trumpet heralds the pouring out of the seven bowls (Revelation 11:15-19, returned to in 15:5-16:21).

Many commentators have observed the parallels between Matthew 24 and the first six seals in Revelation 6, especially when you add in the picture of the saved multitude from ‘every nation, tribe, people and language‘ in Revelation 7:9. Living in an advanced economy after the industrial revolution, we can have a rather distorted view of history. However, read any major world history and it is full of conquest, fighting, famine and death. With a few notable exceptions, all human societies have also been characterised by terrible inequality; hence mass poverty and sickness. Even in 1900, average life expectancy in most countries was 30 years or less. When Revelation 6:8 talks of a quarter of the world’s population being killed ‘by sword, famine and plague’, we may be tempted to think of some terrible future catastrophe. Actually, if we understand famine and plague as specific large-scale events, this is a plausible estimate of death by these three causes across the whole world population from the time of Jesus’ ascension until World War 2. Perhaps even more shocking is that, due to inequality, the majority of the rest of the world’s population simply died from chronic poverty and disease. The six seals thus give us godly insight into more than 1900 years of world history.

Focusing on Revelation 6:8, however, a major change occurred last century. There are still plenty of wars and occasionally these provoke famines. We recently lived through the COVID-19 pandemic. But changes in the technological nature of warfare, the growing commercialisation of agriculture and advances in health care mean that the proportion of deaths resulting from ‘sword, famine and plague’ is now dramatically reduced. Instead, around 1950 the world entered what is sometimes called the Great Acceleration: widely rising living standards, powered by dramatically increased fossil fuel consumption, such that we are now experiencing ever more frequent and serious climatic events. We have entered the age of the trumpets.

The defining characteristic of the age of the trumpets is environmental destruction and this time the key fraction is ‘a third’. Just before COVID-19 a large team of scientists published the most detailed ever study of the state of global biodiversity (2) . This found that a third of global forest cover has disappeared since the industrial revolution (see Revelation 8:7) and that a third of the species within several categories of marine creatures are now threatened with extinction (8:8-9). Other recent research has found that a third of all rivers in Asia, Africa and Latin America are now too polluted to drink (8:10-11) and that a third of all freshwater biodiversity is threatened with extinction as a result. God gave us a good planet to live on (Genesis 1). Since the beginning we have turned against him and sinned in many ways. Now we are even destroying the good creation that God gave us to look after - a sign that the sin of humanity is reaching its full measure, ready for judgment?

The temple in Jerusalem will be rebuilt at the end of the age of the trumpets (Revelation 11:1-15). After that, the seven bowls will be poured out. The short reign of the antichrist will be a time of very intense environmental disaster. Humanity will not repent of our selfish and greedy ways (9:20-21). The planet will be even hotter (16:8-9) and the destruction even more frightening (16:3). This will not be an easy time to live as a Christian or anybody else!

Jesus will return in the midst of this disaster (16:15). He will return at the final trumpet (Matthew 24:31, 1 Corinthians 15:50-53), which – it turns out – is also the pouring out of the bowls. Thus, the new heavens and earth will in some way be born out of the death of the old. Perhaps this should not surprise us. After all, Jesus rose from the dead as the firstborn of the new creation (Colossians 1:18) and our new life comes when our old self is crucified with Jesus (Romans 6:3-4, 2 Corinthians 5:17).

If we are watchful, we will see that the advance signs of Jesus’ return are already in our news on a daily basis. We should, therefore, ‘live holy and godly lives as we look forward to the day of God and speed its coming’ (2 Peter 3:11-13). We speed its coming by taking the gospel to the unreached nations of the world.

(1) The disciples ask about ”the sign” (24:3), but ”these things” (24:33) are plural.
(2) Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (2019) IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, https:// [accessed 22/05/2024].
Posted in