|Topical Bible Study||February 1958|
Times and Signs Series—Article II
“But the path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day.” —Proverbs 4:18
WHEN John the Baptist began his ministry there was a question in the minds of many of the devout Jews as to whether or not he might be the promised Messiah. Luke 3:15 reads: “The people were in expectation, and all men mused in their hearts of John, whether he were the Christ, or not.” John answered their “musings” saying that there was One coming who was “mightier” than he, One whose shoe lachets he was not worthy to unloose.—Mark 1:7; Luke 3:16
This “mightier” One was, of course, the Messiah. Doubtless many in Israel at that time knew of the unusual circumstances associated with the birth of John the Baptist. Not so many would know of the miraculous birth of Jesus, who was six months younger than John. Even so, there was an air of expectancy in the land. This may have been due to a partial understanding of Daniel’s prophecy concerning the “seven weeks, and threescore and two weeks” “unto the Messiah the Prince.”—Daniel 9:25
John the Baptist realized that he was not the Messiah, but he discerned that Jesus was. In an announcement concerning him John said, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. This is he of whom I said, After me cometh a man which is preferred before me: for he was before me. And I knew him not: but that he should be made manifest in Israel.”—John 1:29-31
While at this time there seemed to be no doubt in John’s mind concerning the true identity of Jesus, later we find him wondering. He had been cast into prison, and hearing of “the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples, and said unto him, Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another.” Jesus’ reply was, “Go and show John again those things which ye do hear and see: the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the Gospel preached to them.”—Matthew 11:2-5
We can understand John’s concern over this question which was so vitally important to him. Having believed that Jesus was the Messiah, he expected him to set up the messianic kingdom in Israel, and, through his authority and power deliver the Israelites from their Roman taskmasters. Instead of this, he found himself in prison; and while he had heard of the miracles being performed, he perhaps wondered why a loyal friend of the Messiah, and a relative, should be permitted to languish in prison with no effort being made toward his release. Was one who was able to raise the dead, powerless to intervene on his behalf?
The answer Jesus sent to John’s question should have been very reassuring, although the record does not say whether or not John was convinced by it. The Old Testament prophets had foretold that the Messiah would do all the things that Jesus was doing, including the raising of the dead. When Messiah’s kingdom is fully established these miracles of healing and life-giving will be world-wide. But the fact that Jesus was able to perform such miracles on a local basis, and while still in the flesh, should have been proof enough that he actually was the Messiah.
Not long after this John the Baptist was beheaded. Even if his faith in Jesus as the Messiah had been restored, it seems evident he did not understand clearly just why his kingdom was not being established more quickly. And if John had continued to live until Jesus was crucified, his bewilderment would have been even greater.
No “Outward Show”
Nor did Jesus’ disciples grasp the situation any more clearly than John. On one occasion they heard the Pharisees ask Jesus “when the kingdom of God should come.” His reply to this question was, “The kingdom of God cometh not with outward show [margin]. Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is among [margin] you.”—Luke 17:20,21
The kingdom of God was among the people of Israel at that time in the sense that the King was in their midst. Certainly the Pharisees did not realize this, and the disciples only vaguely comprehended the meaning of the events taking place around them. They did believe, however, that Jesus was the Messiah, and doubtless wondered why he did not do more about establishing his kingdom.
On another occasion Jesus said that he would give his flesh for the life of the world, but his disciples did not understand from this that their Master expected to die a sacrificial death and thus redeem the world from sin and death. (John 6:51) They thought only of the powerful government which the Old Testament prophets foretold the Messiah would establish.—Isa. 9:6,7
The disciples knew, of course, that Jesus had enemies, enemies who would not hesitate to put him to death if they had the opportunity to do so. His enemies were located mostly in Judea, and particularly around Jerusalem. Jesus realized this, and for some time had conducted his ministry in the northern province of Galilee. However, when Lazarus died he announced his intention of returning to Bethany, which was near Jerusalem. The’ disciples were perplexed by this. Thomas said to them, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”—John 11:16,18
Matthew 16:21,22, reads, “From that time forth began Jesus to show unto his disciples, how that he must go into Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day. Then Peter took him, and began to rebuke him, saying, Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee.”
While Jesus thus plainly told his disciples that he expected to be put to death, they could not find it in their hearts to believe it. How could this be if he were the One who had come to establish a kingdom? While they had confidence in what Jesus said, they seemed to hope that in this matter he was overly concerned, and that what he predicted would not come true.
Jesus emphasized that it would be in Jerusalem that he would be apprehended by his enemies, so we read, “Because he [Jesus] was nigh to Jerusalem, and because they thought that the kingdom of God should immediately appear, he said therefore, A certain nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom, and to return.”—Luke 19:11,12
From this parable the disciples evidently gathered the thought that Jesus, whom they correctly believed to be the Messiah, was going away and that it would not be until he returned that he would establish the long-promised kingdom, that government of peace which was to extend its sphere of influence world-wide. They knew not where the “far country” was to which Jesus indicated in the parable he was going. They seemed not to be particularly concerned with this. What they did want to know was when he would return, and what “signs” there would be to indicate the fact that he was again present.
So, just a few days before Jesus was crucified, we find him on the “mount of Olives” with his disciples and they are questioning him. “Tell us,” they said, “when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?” (Matt. 24:3) Just before asking these questions Jesus had told his disciples that the beautiful temple at Jerusalem was to be destroyed, that there would not be one stone left upon another. (Matt. 24:1,2) It was evidently in part at least to this prophecy that the disciples referred in their question, “When shall these things be?”
But they were interested in more than this. They remembered the parable in which Jesus pictured himself as a “certain nobleman” going away into a “far country” and returning to establish a kingdom. They were concerned about this, for had not Jesus promised that they would share with him in the glory of that kingdom? How long must they wait for this exaltation, and how would they know when the time of waiting was ended?
The King James translation does not bring out the real import of the disciples’ questions concerning these important matters. A translation more true to the Greek text would be, “What shall be the sign of thy presence, and of the end of the age?” It is the Greek word parousia which, in the King James Version, is mistranslated “coming;” and the Greek word aion is mistranslated “world.” The disciples did not ask him for signs which would indicate that the coming of Christ was near. They wanted to know how they would be able to discern the fact of his second presence, and that the “age” of waiting for his return had ended.
It was natural for the disciples to ask for “signs” of the Master’s second presence, for it was only by means of signs that they recognized that the Messiah was then in their midst. There was nothing in the prophecies to describe the appearance of the Messiah—the contour of his face, the color of his hair; his height. Jesus had ministered throughout Israel for more than three years. He had healed the sick and raised the dead, but practically the entire nation was blind to the fact that he was the Messiah.
The disciples were favored in being able to recognize him as the Messiah, and this was because they saw, and correctly interpreted, the signs which accompanied his ministry. When Jesus would reassure John the Baptist, he simply called attention to some of these signs. So now, the disciples reasoned, if Jesus was going away and returning later, they again wanted to be among the favored ones who would discern the fact of his presence. Since signs had revealed his first presence to them, they reasoned, and correctly so, that his second presence would also be revealed by signs, hence their question, “What shall be the sign of thy presence, and of the end of the age?”
Jesus did not tell the disciples that their question was out of order, that when he returned he would be suspended in the sky, where everybody could see him, hence that signs would not be needed to reveal the fact of his return. Instead, Jesus acknowledged the appropriateness of the disciples’ questions by the fact that he gave them a long list of “signs” by which the fact of his second presence would be revealed to his people. In other ways, too, Jesus’ answer to the question, “What shall be the sign of thy presence, and of the end of the age?” showed its pertinence to the subject in hand.
Naturally, the disciples were also interested in the “time” of their Lord’s return. This event was doubtless included in their question concerning when “these things” would take place. In his humility Jesus acknowledged that he did not then know the time of his return. “Of that day and hour knoweth no man,” Jesus said, “no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.” (Matt. 24:36) After Jesus was raised from the dead, and when he appeared to his disciples for the last time, he said, “It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power.”—Acts 1:7
Many students of prophecy are in the habit of reading more into these statements by Jesus than he intended. He did not say that he would never know the time of his return. He merely said that he did not then know. Nor did his statement that the “times and the seasons” (I Thess. 5:1) of, the divine plan were in the hands of his Father imply that the Father, in his own due time and way, would not reveal some of the time features of his plan to his faithful people.
In humbly confessing that he did not then know the time of his return, so could not answer this part of the disciples’ question, he prepared their minds for a basically important truth which all the Lord’s people should know. He said, “Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come.” (Matt. 24:42) This indicates clearly that the time of our Lord’s return would not be known in advance. But even more important, it suggests that only those who watched would know that he had returned.
In order to grasp this thought with clarity, it is essential to realize that Christ does not come as a man at his second advent. No, he sacrificed his humanity for the sins of the world. Or, in fulfillment of Jesus’ own statement, he gave his “flesh” for the life of the world. (John 6:51) Jesus was not raised from the dead as a man, but as a glorious divine being. He was present with his disciples for forty days before he returned to heaven; but they saw him only on a few brief occasions, and then it was necessary for him to miraculously appear to them else they could not have seen him at all.
Since his resurrection Jesus is the “express image” of his Heavenly Father, the “invisible God,” “whom no man hath seen, nor can see.” (Heb. 1:3; Col. 1:15; I Tim. 1:17; 6:16) The existence of Jehovah is recognized, not by our ability to see him with the natural eye, but because we discern the signs which prove that he “is, and … is the rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” (Heb. 11:6) Just so, it is only by means of the signs which were to accompany the return of Jesus, that we are able to discern the fact of his second presence. This is why Jesus admonished his disciples to “watch.”
It is important, then, to understand the manner of our Lord’s return if the signs which he outlined to his disciples are to have vital meaning for us. If the traditional theory of Christ’s return, which is that he will come crashing down through the sky, accompanied by a blinding glare of light, flaming fire to engulf the earth, and ear-splitting blasts of trumpets, were true there would be no point in watching for his return; for those who did not watch would know about it as soon as the watchers.
What Do We Watch?
This, naturally, raises the question as to what Jesus meant by watching. For what are the Lord’s people to watch? Obviously, they are not to watch the sky at all. Human vision is limited. If Jesus were to come in the literal manner suggested by the traditions of the Dark Ages, and if his faithful saints in various parts of the earth were all watching the sky to see him come, the vast majority of them would, of necessity, be sorely disappointed: for only those within a radius of a few square miles at the most would be able to see; while those outside of this small circle—in other parts of the country and the world—would be denied this ecstasy of joy.
No, this is not what Jesus meant! Instead, his admonition was to watch the “signs” which he outlined to his disciples, as well as the “signs” which are elsewhere set forth in the prophecies of the Bible. In other words, the Lord’s people, who are alert to their privileges, watch the events taking place in the world and in the church with the view of determining whether or not they are the ones foretold by Jesus, by the apostles, and by the prophets, which were to betoken the fact that the Master had returned. Peter expressed the thought very beautifully when he wrote, “We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts.”—II Pet. 1:19
After telling his disciples that he did not then know the time of his return, that only his Heavenly Father knew this, Jesus added, “But as the days of Nos were, so shall also the coming [Greek, parousia, meaning presence] of the Son of Man be. For as in the days [of Noe] that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark, and knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming [presence] of the Son of Man be.”—Matt. 24:37-39
The point of this illustration is that the people in general in Noah’s day did not know the significance of the time in which they were living; did not know, that is, until the calamity of the Flood was upon them. But Noah knew, and his family knew, for they believed what God had told them.
Luke’s quotation of this statement by Jesus makes the point even clearer—“As it was in the days of Noe, so shall it be also in the days of the Son of Man.” (Luke 17:26) This reveals clearly that Jesus was not speaking of the time of his arrival, but of his presence. As Noah was present in the “days of Noah,” so Jesus is present in the “days of the Son of Man.” This, we submit, is a self-evident fact.
And, this being the case, it brings to light another important truth concerning the Lord’s return, which is, that after he comes there would be a time when his own people would know about it and understand its significance, while the vast majority of mankind, just as in the days of Noah, would “know not.”
As the Sun
The manner of Jesus’ return and second presence is further made plain by him in another illustration. We quote: “Wherefore, if they shall say unto you, Behold, he is in the desert; go not forth: behold, he is in the secret chambers; believe it not. For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming [parousia, presence] of the Son of Man be.”—Matt. 24:26,27
Here we have a number of important points brought to our attention. First, Jesus disabuses the mind of the student of prophecy of the idea that he was to return as a man who could be hidden away in a desert, or in some secret chamber. He wanted his disciples to know that they were not to “watch” by searching for him as they might look for someone who was lost in the desert, or smuggled away by enemies to some “secret chamber.”
Since he was not to return as a man to be seen by the natural eye, his presence would be discovered in other ways. To help us grasp this, Jesus gave another illustration. “As the lightning cometh out of the east,” he said, “‘and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming [presence] of the Son of Man be.” Here, again, the word parousia is used, which means presence rather than coming. Jesus is illustrating the effect of his presence, not the suddenness of his coming, as some have misunderstood this illustration to teach.
The Greek word translated “lightning” in this text is astrape. Its use in the New Testament is very interesting and revealing. It is translated “lightnings” in Revelation 4:5; 8:5; 11:19, and 16:18. In these instances “lightnings” are used to symbolize the diffusion of knowledge.
In Luke 11:35,36 this same Greek word is translated “bright shining.” The passage reads, “Take heed therefore that the light that is in thee be not darkness. If thy whole body therefore, be full of light, having no part dark, the whole shall be full of light, as when the bright shining of a candle doth give thee light.” Here the “bright shining” of a candle is compared with the knowledge of God, the “light” that fills the hearts of the Lord’s people.
When Jesus used this word astrape to describe the effect of his second presence he said it would be as a light, a bright shining, that would come out of the east and shine even unto the west. It is only the light of the sun that fits this description. The lesson, then, which Jesus conveys by this illustration, is that his return and second presence will result in a world-wide dissemination of knowledge, symbolized by light, a light that would eventually dispel all superstition, all satanic darkness, and cause the knowledge of the glory of God to fill the earth as the waters cover the sea.
In this lesson Jesus did not use the Greek word for the sun. As the sun rises there is a brief period of semi-darkness, but within minutes after the sun appears above the horizon there is broad daylight; but the enlightenment which comes to the world as a result of the second presence of Christ will be more gradually diffused. This “light” will be as the sun in the sense that the whole world will be enlightened by it, even as the sun shines from east to west; but the work of enlightenment will be gradual, requiring the entire thousand years of Christ’s presence and kingdom reign to accomplish it fully.
In Zechariah 14:6,7 we have a prophecy of the thousand-year “day” of Christ’s presence, which reads, “It shall come to pass in that day, that the light shall not be clear, nor dark: but it shall be one day which shall be known to the Lord, not day, nor night: but it shall come to pass, that at evening time it shall be light.” This is fully in keeping with Jesus’ illustration of the effect of his second presence. He is that “true light” which eventually will enlighten every man that cometh into the world, but it will require the entire thousand years of his kingdom to accomplish this, Thus it will not be until the close of that “day,” and in the “evening” or beginning of the ages of eternity to follow, that it will be entirely “light.”
In Like Manner
At the time of Jesus’ ascension, when he returned to the heavenly courts, his disciples were somewhat bewildered by what had happened, and an angel appeared to them and said, “Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11) Surely this emphasizes the fact of Jesus’ personal return—“This same Jesus … shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go.”
During his ministry in the flesh, Jesus said, “Before Abraham was, I am,” meaning that he existed long before Abraham did. (John 8:58) As a matter of fact, Jesus, the Logos, was the “beginning of the creation of God.” (Rev. 3:14) But when he was “made flesh” he continued to be the same personality, the same being. So when he gave his flesh for the life of the world, and in the resurrection was exalted to the divine nature, he continued to be the “same Jesus,” even though exalted to the highest of all planes of life in God’s great universe. And, as promised, this “same Jesus” was to return, and again be present to serve humanity, to uplift and bless the fallen race with health and life.
The angel promised that Jesus would “so come in like manner” as the disciples had seen him go. And what was that “manner”? It was quiet and unobserved by the world, the only ones knowing about it being the disciples to whom he had miraculously appeared for the last time. Nor did these actually see Jesus ascend into heaven, for a cloud received him out of their sight. (Acts 1:9) We have already seen that only the faithful disciples of Jesus were to “see” him when again he would be present.
For forty days after his resurrection Jesus was with his disciples, but most of this time he was invisible to them. They were convinced of his resurrection and of his presence by “signs,” some of which were his appearances in various bodies of flesh. (John 20:30) Now the angel had promised that this “same Jesus” was to return, and doubtless they realized that when he did return, only those who were watching for the signs would be aware of the great event.
Revelation 1:7 is another prophecy descriptive of the manner of Christ’s return, and of those who will be affected by it. We quote: “Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him.” This text has been misused in an attempt to prove the erroneous theory that Jesus will return as a man and be suspended in the sky until every individual throughout the whole earth has an opportunity to see him. But this crude interpretation of the prophecy is quite out of harmony with the Bible’s use of language.
Let us note, for example, how the Bible uses the function of the eye to symbolize discernment. After Job’s long experience of calamity and trial, he said in prayer to his God, “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee.” (Job 42:5) All will concede, we believe, that Job did not see God literally, for no man can see him and live.—Exod. 33:20
Jesus said to his disciples, “Blessed are your eyes, for they see.” (Matt. 13:16) Here, again, the function of the eye is used to symbolize discernment. Still another, and very revealing example of this, is found in the prophecy of Isaiah. This prophecy refers to the kingdom age, the time during which “every eye” will eventually “see” Jesus. It reads, “The Lord hath made bear his holy arm in the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.”—Isa. 52:10
Turning again to the prophecy of Revelation 1:7, we note its statement that Jesus “cometh in clouds.” These are storms clouds of trouble upon mankind, and it will be these very clouds, together with events following the “tribulation” which they symbolize, that will reveal to the world the fact that Christ has returned and has taken up his great power to reign.—Rev. 11:17,18
That “all the tribes of the earth” wail, or mourn, because of Christ’s return does not imply that the human race is destroyed. This mourning will be but temporary, and incidental to the overthrow of Satan’s world, preparatory to the full establishment of Christ’s kingdom. With the King present, the kingdom established, and the saints reigning with our glorified Lord, the mourning of the people will be turned to joy. Just as the faithful followers of the Master rejoice as they see the early signs which be token his return, so mankind, when the progress of events reveal his presence to them, will also rejoice, even though the circumstances through which they “see” him will, at first, be distressing.
It will be then that both the church and the world will realize that the loving God of heaven has, throughout the ages, been working out his plan for the blessing of his earthly creatures. The long and patient waiting of God’s faithful servants for the fulfillment of his promises will be at an end. They will then know that every detail of the divine plan has been accomplished exactly as Jehovah designed, and exactly in his “due time.”
Then the “perfect day” of our text will have arrived, and the “shining light” of divine truth, which has illuminated the “just ones” throughout the time when darkness has covered the earth and gross darkness the people sufficiently to guide them in their service and assure them of God’s love, will have scattered all the darkness. (Isa. 60:2) Then, not only will those who have served God in the past without a full knowledge of his purposes, know him and understand his ways as they pertain to mankind, but all mankind will have an opportunity to know him; for the knowledge of the Lord will then fill the earth. (Isa, 11:9; Hab. 2:14) May we continue to look and pray for that “perfect day.”