Three Eras in Man's History
The Bible speaks of three specific ages in man's history. The first is the period before the Flood, from the time of Adam to Noah. It is called in the Bible "the world that then existed." We read in 2 Peter 3:6 that "the world that then existed perished, being flooded with water."
The second age includes the time after the Flood until Christ's second coming. It is called in Scripture "this present evil age" (Galatians 1:4). Jesus' disciples wanted to know when this period would end. They asked Him: "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).
The third age of man will begin at Christ's second coming and is referred to in God's Word as "the world to come" (Hebrews 2:5). The third era will start with the resurrection of the righteous at Jesus' return to earth.
Speaking of this resurrection, the book of Revelation states: "Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years" (Revelation 20:6).
So, strictly speaking, the end time refers to a specific period just before Christ returns that will bring "this present evil age" to a close. It is the end of the age of Satan's dominance over humanity.
Prophecies from the Old Testament
Some think the subject of the end time in the Bible is mainly confined to the New Testament. But beginning in Genesis, the first book of the Bible, the Scriptures look beyond our present evil age to the time of the establishing of God's Kingdom. Old Testament scriptures have much to say about events that take place during the 31/2-year time of the end and the following "world to come."
In the Garden of Eden, God revealed that a time would come when Satan's earthly reign and influence would end. To Satan God said: "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed [Christ]; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel" (Genesis 3:15).
Although Satan was destined to harm the Savior (by instigating His crucifixion), the devil could not prevent Jesus from coming back to life and cannot prevent Christ from ultimately defeating him.
Paul referred to this prophecy when he wrote to Church members in Rome, "And the God of peace will crush Satan under your feet shortly" (Romans 16:20). It is comforting to know that at Christ's second coming Satan will at last be vanquished and imprisoned (Revelation 20:1-3).
So, from the earliest beginnings of humanity, God revealed there would be an end to this Satan-led world, a definite time for the devil and his forces to be soundly defeated.
Righteous men mentioned in the Old Testament, such as Enoch, knew that God ultimately would intervene to carry out His judgment on earth. "Now Enoch, the seventh [generation] from Adam, prophesied about these men also, saying, 'Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of His saints, to execute judgment on all, to convict all who are ungodly among them of all their ungodly deeds which they have committed in an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things which ungodly sinners have spoken against Him" (Jude 14-15).
After the Flood other faithful men such as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob looked beyond our present evil age to the time when God's Kingdom would be established. "By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise; for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God" (Hebrews 11:8-10).
The patriarchs knew God would one day establish His Kingdom. They lived and died confident He would fulfill His promises and include them in His Kingdom.
"These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country [God's Kingdom]. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them" (verses 13-16).
These men were not imagining or guessing about the future. They were directly inspired by God. As Peter explained, "prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit" (2 Peter 1:21).
We find many prophecies about end-time events in the book of Psalms. Psalm 2 reveals the nations will oppose the rule of Christ: "Why do the nations rage, and the people plot a vain thing? . . . I will declare the decree: The Lord has said to Me, 'You are My Son, today I have begotten You. Ask of Me, and I will give You the nations for Your inheritance, and the ends of the earth for Your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron; You shall dash them to pieces like a potter's vessel' " (Psalm 2:1, 7-9).
(Other mentions of end-time events are in Psalm 9:5-15; 10:3-18; 11:1-7; 12:3-5; 21:8-12; 46:8-10; 47:1-4; 75:7-8; 76:7-9; 96:10-13; 97:1-6; 98:1-3; 99:1-5; and 110:1-6).
The end time: a theme of the prophets
Although prophecies relating to the end time are only occasionally found in the early books of the Old Testament, they are a major theme of the prophets who wrote several centuries later. Peter explains that these prophets were "searching what, or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ [the time of His first coming], and the glory that should follow [His second coming]" (1 Peter 1:11, King James Version).
Isaiah is a prime example of how often God spoke about end-time conditions and the coming Kingdom Jesus Christ would establish at His return. The period of upheaval and transition from man's rule to God's rule is also frequently referred to as "the day of the Lord," "the latter days," "the last days" or simply "that day." Here are a few examples that show this recurring theme in Isaiah:
"Now it shall come to pass in the latter days, that the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established on the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow to it. Many people shall come and say, 'Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us His ways, and we shall walk in His paths.'
"For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and rebuke many people. They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore" (Isaiah 2:2-4).
"Enter into the rock, and hide in the dust, from the terror of the Lord and the glory of His majesty. The lofty looks of man shall be humbled, the haughtiness of men shall be bowed down, and the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day. For the day of the Lord of hosts shall come upon everything proud and lofty, upon everything lifted up—and it shall be brought low . . . They shall go into the holes of the rocks, and into the caves of the earth, from the terror of the Lord and the glory of His majesty, when He arises to shake the earth mightily" (Isaiah 2:10-12, 19).
"In that day the Branch of the Lord [Jesus Christ] shall be beautiful and glorious; and the fruit of the earth shall be excellent and appealing for those of Israel who have escaped. And it shall come to pass that he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy—everyone who is recorded among the living in Jerusalem" (Isaiah 4:2-3).
"For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end. Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, to order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever" (Isaiah 9:6-7).
"There shall come forth a Rod [Jesus Christ] from the stem of Jesse [father of King David], and a Branch shall grow out of his roots. The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him . . . He shall strike the earth with the rod of His mouth, and with the breath of His lips He shall slay the wicked" (Isaiah 11:1-4).
"Behold, the day of the Lord comes, cruel, with both wrath and fierce anger, to lay the land desolate, and he will destroy its sinners from it. For the stars of heaven and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be darkened in its going forth, and the moon will not cause its light to shine. 'I will punish the world for its evil . . . Therefore I will shake the heavens and the earth will move out of her place, in the wrath of the Lord of hosts' " (Isaiah 13:9-13). Literally dozens more such prophecies appear in the book of Isaiah and almost as many in the books of Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel. These men prophesied of the terrible days that would precede the coming of the Messiah as King of kings.
Other prophets speak explicitly of the end times
The final section of the Old Testament is known as the Minor Prophets. Virtually all of these 12 prophetic books have something to say about the end time. Joel and Zechariah are examples.
God inspired Joel to describe the great destruction which would take place during the Day of the Lord: "Blow the trumpet in Zion, and sound an alarm in My holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble; for the day of the Lord is coming, for it is at hand. A day of darkness and gloominess . . . The Lord gives voice before His army, for His camp is very great; for strong is the One who executes His word. For the day of the Lord is great and very terrible; who can endure it?" (Joel 2:1-2, 11).
Zechariah adds: "Behold, the day of the Lord is coming, and your spoil will be divided in your midst. For I will gather all the nations to battle against Jerusalem . . . Then the Lord will go forth and fight against those nations, as He fights in the day of battle. And in that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, which faces Jerusalem on the east . . . And the Lord shall be King over all the earth. In that day it shall be—'The Lord is one,' and His name one" (Zechariah 14:1-3, 9).
The theme of the end time and the Kingdom of God figures so prominently in the books of the prophets that Peter told the Jews they should believe in Christ because of this testimony. Peter admonished them: "Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that He may send Jesus Christ, who was preached to you before, whom heaven must receive until the times of restoration of all things, which God has spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets since the world began" (Acts 3:19-21).
The end time in the New Testament
Jesus' longest prophecy about the end time is in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21 in what is commonly called the Olivet Prophecy. On this occasion, during the week leading up to His crucifixion, Jesus and His disciples left the temple grounds and climbed the Mount of Olives to enjoy a spectacular view of the city and the gleaming temple overlaid with white marble and gold. "Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked Him privately, 'Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign when all these things will be fulfilled?' " (Mark 13:3-4).
Christ then revealed to them the conditions on earth leading up to His return. He said it would be a time of increasing troubles and turmoil. He warned that during this time mankind would have the capacity to annihilate human life from the face of the earth. "For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be. And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect's sake those days will be shortened" (Matthew 24:21-22).
Mighty as the Roman Empire was in those days, its legions didn't come close to having the armaments to wipe mankind from the face of the earth. This condition would only become a real possibility in the 20th century with the development and deployment of nuclear weapons in a worldwide arsenal with the capacity to kill every man, woman and child many times over.
Signs of an approaching end
Jesus described in a brief outline form the conditions that would indicate the end time neared. He warned His disciples: "Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name, saying, 'I am the Christ,' and will deceive many" (Matthew 24:4-5).
Jesus first prophesied it would be common to use His name to win over followers. This suggests that many outwardly Christian churches, denominations and organizations would exist at the time of the end, and many would be deceived into believing their leaders represented Christ. Yet the Church that really follows Christ would be faithfully obeying God's Word and His commandments. Christ warned, "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven" (Matthew 7:21).
Next Jesus described political, military and environmental trends before His second coming. "And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of sorrows" (Matthew 24:6-8).
An analogy of labor pains
Many assume the constant reports of wars, violence, uprisings, famine, epidemics, earthquakes and natural disasters in our headlines are sure signs we are in the end time. Certainly Jesus Christ and other biblical prophets made it clear such tragedies will shake the earth as the time of the end approaches.
But Jesus Christ Himself explained that these factors, by themselves, do not reveal we are in the end time, because there would be many such catastrophes before He returns. These tragedies, Jesus said, set the stage for the greater turmoil and sorrow of the end time. Horrifying and deadly as they are, these disasters are only "the beginning of sorrows." The worst is yet to come.
The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible translates Christ's words in Matthew 24:8 as "all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs." Jesus was using an analogy of a woman in labor. As The Bible Knowledge Commentary explains: "These things, Jesus said, will be the beginning of birth pains. As a pregnant woman's birth pains indicate that her child will soon be born, so these universal conflicts and catastrophes will mean the end of this interadvent Age is near" (Logos (software for Windows), comment on Matthew 24:8).
So Christ was not referring to the periodic catastrophes such as wars, famines, disease epidemics and earthquakes that occasionally strike but to a unique time when such events would steadily worsen. We should consider three important questions when analyzing whether events are the signs of the end time Jesus Christ described. First, could they simply be part of the normal ebb and flow of disasters people have experienced throughout history? Second, are all the signs Jesus mentioned in place? Third, is there solid evidence the prophesied trends and conditions are inexorably increasing and intensifying?
Many well-meaning people have erred when interpreting dramatic world events as sure signs of the end time—only to see them fail to develop as anticipated and pass quietly into history. Had they exercised a little more caution, they could have seen that not everything Jesus spoke about was in place at that time. We can see that in hindsight. Today, more than ever in history, we can see most aspects of the signs Jesus Christ gave present in our world. Yet a few crucial signs of the "time of the end" are still missing. The puzzle remains a little short of some essential pieces.
Other signs mark that time
Jesus predicted other signs that will mark that increasingly threatening time. He said a ruthless persecution against God's people—this time on a worldwide scale—will again emerge: "Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name's sake. And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another. Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold. But he who endures to the end shall be saved" (Matthew 24:9-13).
As intolerant conditions worsen, frightened people will grow even more fearful and betray each other. In a growing climate of lawlessness and hostility, people will abandon each other and God and His instruction. The devil, having been cast down to the earth and knowing his time is short (Revelation 12:12-17), will try to disrupt God's plans.
Satan will inspire his followers to take control of God's holy city, Jerusalem. "Therefore when you see the 'abomination of desolation,' spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (whoever reads, let him understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains . . . For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be. And unless those day were shortened, no flesh would be saved . . ." (Matthew 24:15-16, 21-22, compare Revelation 11:2).
Jerusalem has fallen to outside forces before, including the Romans, Arabs and Turks. Jesus predicted foreign forces will again gain control in a period of unparalleled global crisis. This same period will see the instigation of a world war that, if God were not to intervene, would eventually destroy human life from the planet.
Religious and heavenly signs
Jesus continued with other signs that would mark the end time. He revealed that religious leaders will use Satan's deceptive powers to perform miracles and persuade the world to do their bidding. "Then if anyone says to you, 'Look, here is the Christ!' or 'There!' do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect" (Matthew 24:23-24).
To counteract this deception, Christ predicts His gospel would be faithfully preached to all nations as the end time nears: "And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come" (Matthew 24:14).
Later, during the final 3 1/2 year period, He will use two of His servants as mighty witnesses for the truth, giving them miraculous powers. "And I will give power to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy one thousand two hundred and sixty days [31/2 years] . . . These have power to shut heaven, so that no rain falls in the days of their prophecy; and they have power over waters to turn them to blood, and to strike the earth with all plagues, as often as they desire" (Revelation 11:3, 6).
Other dramatic events will mark these final days. "Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken" (Matthew 24:29).
After these astounding events, said Jesus, He will return to earth in power and majesty. "Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory" (verse 30).
The analogy of the budding fig tree
Before concluding, Jesus gave yet another analogy to help us understand that not all catastrophes—wars, famines, plagues or earthquakes—will indicate his imminent return. He compares our observation of the events leading to the end-time crisis to viewing the budding of a fig tree and recognizing the coming of summer is near.
He said: "Now learn this parable from the fig tree: When its branch has already become tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near. So you also, when you see all these things, know that it is near—at the doors! (verses 32-33)." Notice that all these things must be present for the analogy to be valid.
Speaking to those who will see "all these things" develop, Jesus continues: "Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away. But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only" (verses 34-35). As in nature, a false spring can occur. Sometimes the weather warms and seems ready for spring, with some trees even blooming, then a sudden frost does great damage. Similarly, many troubling world events in the past can be viewed as false springs.
For example, for the first time in history this century has seen the eruption of world wars. These two devastating world wars caused untold grief and brought death to tens of millions. Yet these wars eventually ended and the world returned to an uneasy truce and relative peace. The occurrence of terribly destructive wars alone is not proof the end time has arrived.
Similarly, history has seen periodic moral swings from abject license to stern morality and back again. Such has happened in the apostle Paul's day, in the Roman Empire, in Islam, in the Renaissance, and in our day.
Paul described the deteriorating moral and spiritual values that would permeate the last days: "But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power" (2 Timothy 3:1-5).
Again, the key to determining whether a moral downswing—including the modern one—is part of the moral degradation spoken of by the apostles and prophets is whether the trends steadily increase or ultimately diminish. If they continue intensifying, and are accompanied by the other end-time signs Jesus Christ and the prophets predicted, then the final events may be just around the corner.
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