by Richard T. Ritenbaugh
The world has experienced a rough stretch of crises over the past several months. A handful of major natural disasters and a few manmade ones have put thousands of lives in jeopardy: hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria; the massive fires in Washington State, Oregon, Utah, Montana, and California; the 8.2 and 7.1 earthquakes in southern Mexico; the monsoon flooding and landslides in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh; and others around the world. Something huge and deadly seems to crop up on us every few weeks.
Many people assert that the number and cost of these disasters are increasing. According to government statistics, since 1980, 212 disasters have hit the United States, causing over $1.2 trillion in damage. A typical year in the ‘80s saw an average of 2.7 major disasters (meaning disasters causing damages over $1 billion, adjusted for inflation), while in the ‘90s and ‘00s, the average climbed to 4.6 and 5.4 per year. So far this decade, each year has averaged 10.5 disasters. By this reckoning, an additional major disaster has been added to the average every four years.
This is somewhat deceiving, though, because these statistics are based on cost. We are suffering more costly disasters because the economy has doubled since the ‘80s. In areas where disaster has struck, increasing numbers of homes, businesses, factories, roads, hospitals, etc., have been built and suffered damage. Accounting for this economic growth, major disasters have been increasing, not by one every four years, but by one every quarter-century—an increase still, but not nearly as much as it seems.
So many people believe disasters are unrelentingly snowballing due to hysterical media coverage. During Hurricane Irma coverage, the viewer endured a solid week of “this will be the most damaging storm ever to hit the U.S. mainland!” reporting. Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine ratcheted up the rhetoric even further when he called Irma a “nuclear hurricane” while ordering a mandatory evacuation.
We must realize that the media are not interested in giving us a straight story. They know that negative news sells; it gets people’s attention. The worse the world seems, the more viewers. So they report a great deal more bad news—hyped, fluffed, and interminably repeated—than good news. To them, it is all about ratings and advertising dollars, not the truth, so the mainstream media set us up to think that things are far worse than they truly are.
Spirit and Truth
For us, true Christians who believe the return of Jesus Christ is just over the horizon, this presents a special problem. We want Him to return soon—in our lifetimes. We desire to see God’s Kingdom bring peace, security, and prosperity to the earth so that our children and grandchildren can live in the wonderful World Tomorrow. But this can make us vulnerable to false hope if we are taken in by the media’s negative drumbeat, which is signaling with every disaster that the end of the world is upon us.
Some will think that this article is “putting far off” Christ’s return or saying that He delays His coming. That is not the case at all! We want Jesus to return as soon as possible. However, there are two dangers we need to avoid: 1) being manipulated by a truth-deficient media, and 2) placing our desires above what Scripture reveals about Christ’s return. As Peter writes in II Peter 1:19 (King James Version [KJV]), the word of prophecy is more sure than anyone’s eyewitness testimony. We can trust what God prophesies about His Son’s return far more than the news.
The world, then, can tell us nothing about the return of Christ. At best, it can provide vague indications of how evil society is. On the other hand, all that is true and worth knowing about His second coming is found in Scripture. We do ourselves a great disservice when we cling to wrong-headed, human-generated speculation, and we suffer disappointment when our hopes are dashed. Proverbs 13:12 says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.” We need to make sure our hope is based on truth so that we can await its fulfillment with faithful endurance, as God expects.
John 4:23-24 is an essential passage in terms of our relationship with God:
But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.
The phrase “in spirit and truth” describes our approach and service to God as being completely sincere and completely real. The reality or truth that our worship must be based on is, of course, God’s Word. If an idea or belief does not square with what God reveals in Scripture, it should not enter our understanding of God’s way, His purpose, and His plan. This includes our understanding of prophecy—and especially that of Christ’s return.
Yet, church members still fall for strange and extreme speculations from prophecy enthusiasts and conspiracy theorists about “the end of the world.” These theories are not founded on biblical truth but on the imaginations and reasonings of men. Our source of prophetic vision has a higher origin. As Isaiah 8:20 says, “To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.” Believing outlandish theories is like clutching at straws.
Precursors to Wrath
What, then, are we to think of the disasters this nation has been experiencing of late? If they are not direct signs of the apocalypse, what are they? What God says to Israel in Amos 4:6-12 provides the best answer:
“Also I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities. And lack of bread in all your places; yet you have not returned to Me,” says the Lord. “I also withheld rain from you, when there were still three months to the harvest. . . . Yet you have not returned to Me,” says the Lord. . . . “Therefore thus will I do to you, O Israel; because I will do this to you, prepare to meet your God, O Israel!” (Amos 4:6-8, 12)
Between verses 7 and 12, God also mentions sending them drought, blight and mildew, locusts, plague, military defeat, and divine punishment for sin, yet after every disaster, Israel still refused to repent. So, God warns them in verse 12 that He would bring on them a major judgment—His wrath, their Day of the Lord, a day of “darkness, and not light” (Amos 5:18-20).
This passage suggests that the disasters we have recently seen are warnings to the nation that God is aware of its sin and the people’s drifting from Him. He is trying to get their attention so that they realize that they need to repent and return to Him. These disasters, then, are precursor judgments and threats, prods to motivate repentance and a restored relationship.
The ultimate judgment of God comes later, and Christ’s return happens according to the prophecies recorded in Scripture. They are straightforward—not esoteric, not discernable only to biblical numerologists or experts of some mysterious Bible code. The prophecies will be fulfilled in real, visible, unmistakable events.
Our Savior Himself sets some necessary ground rules in Mark 13:32-37:
But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Take heed, watch and pray; for you do not know when the time is. It is like a man going to a far country, who left his house and gave authority to his servants, and to each his work, and commanded the doorkeeper to watch. Watch therefore, for you do not know when the master of the house is coming—in the evening, at midnight, at the crowing of the rooster, or in the morning—lest, coming suddenly, he find you sleeping. And what I say to you, I say to all: Watch!
He gets the timing of His return out of the way first: No one knows but the Father, not even Himself! So that should not be an issue with us—we should not worry about it or even be eager to figure it out, as it is a futile task, a time-waster. We will never be right, and it is unverifiable until it happens. Besides, most importantly, doing so provides little-to-no spiritual benefit.
What, then, are we to do? “Take heed, watch, and pray.” Because we do not know when He will return (notice He says the more general “time” in verse 33, not just the specific day and hour), we must be ready for His return constantly. We do this by taking heed and watching.
“Take heed” is Greek blepete, which means “to notice carefully,” “to be ready to learn,” “to pay attention,” “to be prepared to respond appropriately.” The word-picture within it is a runner on a starting line who hears, “Ready. Get set. . . ,” and is poised to explode out of his stance as soon as the gun fires.
“Watch” is Greek agrypneite, which means “to keep oneself awake,” “to remain alert,” “to be sleepless,” “to be on the lookout,” “to be vigilant,” “to be on watch [duty].” The obvious illustration is a guard standing watch, keeping himself awake and alert to notice anyone approaching.
These commands are modified by “pray,” which implies being in constant communication with God. This modification suggests that our taking heed and watching are spiritual, not physical. The parallel verse in Luke 21:36 says explicitly that our watching and praying are focused on being counted worthy to escape the dangers of the end times and to stand before Christ.
That is how true Christians will be prepared for the Master’s return—and for the Tribulation and the Day of the Lord, for that matter: by being diligent in keeping themselves on the straight and narrow path to God’s Kingdom. This advice is the essence of Jesus’ three parables in Matthew 25: We are not to sleep but to keep our lamps full of oil, faithfully use our talents for growth, and serve the brethren as we wait for the coming of our Savior.
Signs of His Coming
Even so, Jesus also gives us signs of His coming so we will know when our redemption draws near. These prophetic guideposts are necessary to motivate us to trust Him and endure to the end.
In Matthew 24:3-8, Jesus lays out the first four seals of Revelation 6, but He twice emphasizes that these kinds of things will happen almost as a matter of course. He says, “All these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet” (verse 6), and “All these are the beginning of sorrows” (verse 8). As such, they do not indicate that the end is imminent. At best, these sorts of events mark the beginning of the end. Of course, religious deception, wars, famines, pestilences, and earthquakes have been happening all along, from before Jesus spoke this prophecy up until modern times. Their value in assessing how close we are to the end lies in their frequency and intensity.
Herbert W. Armstrong’s favorite prophecy of the end appears in verse 14: “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.” He believed he was fulfilling it, and maybe so. He, however, has been dead for more than thirty years, and the churches of God are continuing to spread the gospel around the world by various means. This, too, is not a precise indicator of how close we are to the end. At best, we can say we are somewhere in the ballpark of the last days.
Many believe verses 15-22 refer to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, while others say it is end time. It is probably both, an example of type/antitype. However, verses 21-22 are certainly end-time:
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.
The tribulation at the end—what we have traditionally called the Great Tribulation—will be the worst the world has ever seen. It will be far worse than the fall of Jerusalem; the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the Holocaust; the World War II bombings of Dresden, Hamburg, London, and Tokyo; the famines in East Africa and elsewhere; the Spanish flu—perhaps all of them put together! The world has never seen anything like this.
However, the terrors of the Great Tribulation are possible now, and they could happen soon. But, as Jesus said, the end is not yet. Humanity could erase itself from the planet—kill off all life through its technology and weaponry—so we are near, but other things must happen first.
In verses 23-28, Jesus sounds a warning to those who are so eager for His return: Do not be snookered by those who claim that Christ has returned. He is not out in the desert or hiding in some inner room. He cautions us that “false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect” (verse 24). We need to be discerning about the information we swallow.
We can extend this in principle to cover those who think they know when, how, or where Christ will return. These are only distractions and deceptions because He has told us Himself what to look for. His return will not be secret or sneak up on us! It will be a tremendous show, as it were, like a massive flash of lightning and a roll of thunder that encompasses the whole of the sky (verse 27). His coming will be a worldwide phenomenon that no one will be able to miss. And it will happen during a time of war (verse 28).
In Christ’s description of His second coming in verses 29-31, He depicts it as a unique occurrence:
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. 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. And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
His return will be so astounding and powerful that the people of this world will quail in fear, thinking that they are all doomed to destruction. His return will not be in secret or done in a corner. It will be wonderful, glorious, frightening, and decisive. And it certainly has not happened yet.
That Dreadful Day
Isaiah 66:14-16 is a parallel passage:
When you see this, your heart shall rejoice, and your bones shall flourish like grass; the hand of the Lord shall be known to His servants, and His indignation to His enemies. For behold, the Lord will come with fire and with His chariots, like a whirlwind, to render His anger with fury, and His rebuke with flames of fire. For by fire and by His sword the Lord will judge all flesh; and the slain of the Lord shall be many.
After building His church, the Bride, to the point that she is complete and ready for the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, Jesus Christ will return in wrath and power as the great Judge to slay His enemies and set up His Kingdom. It will not be a good or fun time. The Day of the Lord is a time of death and destruction. As Amos 5:18 says, “It will be darkness, and not light,” and not an event in God’s Plan that we should desire. While it is necessary for God’s justice to be satisfied, it will be a time of appalling loss of life and devastation. In Malachi’s words, it will be a “great and dreadful day” (Malachi 4:5).
In one way, we can be thankful that that Day has not yet come. Would we have been ready if it had? As the days darken toward the return of the King of kings, true Christians need to heed the warnings embedded in these latest disasters and repent of their sins and move even closer to God. Christ is preparing His Bride, and she will make herself ready for His glorious appearing (Revelation 19:7). If we desire to be part of that Bride, we should do as the apostle Paul advises in Ephesians 5:15-16: “See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil.”