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02 September 2019

The Apostle Paul and the Signs of the Times

Storm over a city - Photo by Nikolas Behrendt on Unsplash
Albert Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Over the past five generations, since at least 1830, American prophecy preachers have pointed to earthquakes, wars, famines, increased speed of travel, and vast increases in human knowledge as evidence that the “last generation” to exist before the return of Jesus was underway.
Despite these claims made with a seemingly impressive amount of evidence, Jesus has not returned, the battle of  Armageddon has not been fought, the Antichrist has not appeared, “Gog and Magog” have not attacked Israel from the north, the Roman empire has not risen again, the false prophet and his new world religion are nowhere to be found, the great tribulation has yet to commence, California has not fallen into the sea, and there has been no “rapture” despite the passage of over two “generations” since the founding of modern Israel (1948). This would seem to fit Professor Einstein’s definition.
Preachers tell us that Jesus and the Apostle Paul told us that we are to know the “times and seasons” so we will recognize the “signs” that indicate the proximity of the “end” and the return of Jesus in glory. But did Paul ever teach such a thing?
The Apostle referred often to the future “coming” of Jesus; it is foundational to the Christian hope and Paul’s gospel.  Our salvation will remain incomplete until Jesus returns and raises us from the dead. Paul did a time or two describe key events that will coincide with the return of Jesus, including the resurrection, the consummation of the kingdom, the cessation of death, and the judgment of the wicked (1 Corinthians 15:20-28, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10).
But Paul’s list of “signs” that will precede the coming of Jesus is quite brief. His description of sin and deceivers waxing worse and worse is too general to pin to any specific event or even generation; every era of Church history has been plagued with false teachers and apostasy (1 Timothy 4:1-2).
The closest Paul came to a list of recognizable “signs” that will precede the Second Coming is found in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-4; however, in that passage, he referred to two things that had not yet occurred as evidence that the “day of the Lord has not yet set in,” not as evidence of its proximity. That day could not possibly commence since neither the “man of lawlessness” nor the “apostasy” had yet appeared (Interestingly, this “man of lawlessness” will be characterized by his “lying signs and wonders”). How long after these two events before the day of the Lord arrives Paul did not say.
In only one passage does the Apostle Paul discuss the “signs and seasons,” in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-3 (“But concerning the times and the seasons you have no need that anything be written to you, for you yourselves know accurately that the day of the Lord is coming like a thief in the night”). This statement follows a paragraph in which Paul provided further explanation on the “coming” or Parousia of Jesus, which demonstrates that the Thessalonians did not possess a detailed and accurate knowledge of final events (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).
Paul’s point is there is no need to provide the Thessalonians with details about the “times and seasonsbecause, as they already knew “accurately,” the day of the Lord is coming like a thief in the night, echoing a parable of Jesus.  The point of the analogy is to always be ready precisely because no one can know where and when a thief will strike (cp. Luke 12:37-40).
Paul expresses his assurance that the Thessalonians will not be taken by surprise, not because they know all the signs for which to watch, but because they are children of the light and live righteous lives. They remain ready for that day’s sudden arrival because of their right relationship with God, therefore, it will not overtake them “like a thief in the night.”
As for the wicked, they will declare “peace and safety,” living as if nothing untoward will ever occur until “sudden destruction overtakes them.” The analogy of Jesus comparing the years prior to his return with the “days of Noah and of Lot” are echoed in this statement. Christ’s point was not that life just before his return would replicate the conditions before the flood; rather, that men and women would go about their daily routines until the day of the Son of Man arrived suddenly and overtook them.

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