Understanding the Times
We live in uncertain days. Wars, fires, terrorist attacks, hurricanes, earthquakes and a host of other calamities are happening all around the world. What are we to think of the times we are living in? Let’s take a look at what the Bible teaches about understanding the times we are living in.
We will start our exploration in the Old Testament, back before David became king of Israel. During the last days of Saul’s reign over Israel, many of his military leaders were defecting and going over to David. 1 Chronicles 12:32 tells of some of these when it says:
From the tribe of Issachar, there were 200 leaders of the tribe with their relatives. All these men understood the signs of the times and knew the best course for Israel to take. (NLT)
These men were noted for their discernment in understanding the signs of the times, and therefore, made the choice to align themselves with David. Since there were 200 of them, it does not seem that this was a unique giftedness as much as training or education.
Jumping forward in history to when Jesus was teaching in Judea, we find Jesus confronting the religious teachers of His day about their inability to discern the signs of the times. Jesus rebuked the religious leaders of his day with the following statement:
“You know the saying, ‘Red sky at night means fair weather tomorrow; 3red sky in the morning means foul weather all day.’ You know how to interpret the weather signs in the sky, but you don’t know how to interpret the signs of the times!” (Matthew 16:2-3, NLT)
Obviously, Jesus expected them to be able to understand the times they were living in. In other words, understanding did not require special knowledge as much as attentiveness.
Because of their ignorance of the times, many of the people of Jesus’ day did not understand that He was their Messiah. This is precisely what Jesus was pointing out in Matthew 16. However, it is important to understand that their ignorance was willful. God made it plain in His Word, and Jesus made it plain in His teaching, but many chose not to acknowledge or recognize the truth.
Scripture tells us that it will be the same in the last days. Many will remain ignorant on purpose. In 2 Peter 3:3-7, Peter tells us:
3Most importantly, I want to remind you that in the last days scoffers will come, mocking the truth and following their own desires. 4They will say, “What happened to the promise that Jesus is coming again? From before the times of our ancestors, everything has remained the same since the world was first created.”
5They deliberately forget that God made the heavens by the word of his command, and he brought the earth out from the water and surrounded it with water. 6Then he used the water to destroy the ancient world with a mighty flood. 7And by the same word, the present heavens and earth have been stored up for fire. They are being kept for the day of judgment, when ungodly people will be destroyed. (NLT)
Pay special attention to the words, “They deliberately forget.” Verse 3 specifically says that those who mock the truth follow their own desires. Many truths of Scripture are inconvenient if we are determined to follow our own desires. The promise of Jesus’ return and the judgment of God on those who suppress the truth by their ungodliness is just one of these inconvenient truths.
Knowing the signs of the times is not a prophetic gift. It is a matter of knowing the Word of God, and applying it. For example, Herod’s scholars were able to discern that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem when Herod inquired as to the location of Messiah’s birth. While many of Jesus’ day did not recognize the signs of the times, there were many who did recognize the times. We have the Gospel account of Nicodemus as well as many others who came to Jesus. Acts 2 gives the account of 3,000 believers added to the Church in one day. Therefore, we can assume that the signs of the times were clear to those who believed.
Many passages in the Bible speak of what is to come. Dr. John Walvoord, in his The Prophecy Knowledge Handbook, discusses a thousand passages on prophecy, some of which are single verses and some of which are paragraphs or entire Bible chapters. According to Dr. Walvoord, half of those passages, approximately five hundred, have been fulfilled.[i]
This gives us a couple of things we can build on. First, we can see the reliability of Bible prophecy. Everything has been happening just as it says in the Bible. Second, it shows us how we can interpret prophecy. The prophecies fulfilled so far have been literal. For example, it was prophesied that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem, and he was born in Bethlehem. It was prophesied that Jesus would be born of a virgin, and he was born of a virgin. From the way prophecies have been fulfilled in the past, we can see that the literal interpretation is what we can expect.
In Daniel chapter 9, we see Daniel interpreting the prophecies of Jeremiah in their literal sense. Daniel 9:2 says:
I, Daniel, learned from reading the word of the LORD, as revealed to Jeremiah the prophet, that Jerusalem must lie desolate for seventy years. (NLT)
He is referring to Jeremiah 25:11 that says:
This entire land will become a desolate wasteland. Israel and her neighboring lands will serve the king of Babylon for seventy years.
However, he prays for the rest of the prophecy to be fulfilled because Jeremiah 29:10 says:
This is what the LORD says: “You will be in Babylon for seventy years. But then I will come and do for you all the good things I have promised, and I will bring you home again. (NLT)
These prophecies drove Daniel to pray. We especially see this in Jeremiah 29:11-14 which says:
11For I know the plans I have for you,” says the LORD. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. 12In those days when you pray, I will listen. 13If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. 14I will be found by you,” says the LORD. “I will end your captivity and restore your fortunes.
In Daniel’s prayer, recorded in Daniel 9, we see the wholehearted seeking of the Lord that Jeremiah is speaking of. Daniel had spent over sixty years serving foreign kings as a captive from Judah, and knew from the prophecies that the time was drawing near for the end of the captivity.
As Danial was praying and seeking God, the angel Gabriel came and delivered a message to Daniel. Daniel 9:21-23 says:
21As I was praying, Gabriel, whom I had seen in the earlier vision, came swiftly to me at the time of the evening sacrifice. 22He explained to me, “Daniel, I have come here to give you insight and understanding. 23The moment you began praying, a command was given. And now I am here to tell you what it was, for you are very precious to God. Listen carefully so that you can understand the meaning of your vision.
There are a couple of things that are worth noting in Gabriel’s opening statement to Daniel.
First, he tells Daniel that he came to give Daniel insight and understanding.
There are mysteries and things that we cannot understand. For example, although we believe and teach the Trinity, it is a concept that we cannot fully understand or comprehend. Even so, it is clearly taught in Scripture. There are many things in prophecy that are difficult to understand because we do not have the ability to know what has not yet come about. For example, the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem was foretold in the prophets and was clearly understood, but who would have pictured a stable and who would have understood He would be greeted by shepherds? However, as difficult as prophecy is, it is given to give us insight and understanding. In Amos 3:7 the Scriptures say:
Indeed, the Sovereign LORD never does anything until he reveals his plans to his servants the prophets. (NLT)
Even the prophets had a difficult time picturing what was clearly given to them. 1 Peter 1:11 tells us:
They wondered what time or situation the Spirit of Christ within them was talking about when he told them in advance about Christ's suffering and his great glory afterward. (NLT)
Prophecies are given to give us insight and understanding, but until the events actually unfold, we cannot picture all of the details.
I love the Covenant theologians. However, there is a glaring weakness in their teaching on the end times. In their view, the Church replaces Israel in God’s plan. As a theology, Covenant theology developed largely before the 1940s. Therefore, Israel was not a nation, had no prospects of being a nation and people living in the world of their day could not picture the world we live in today. Now, when I look at the world in relation to prophecy, Ezekiel 37 and the Valley of Dry Bones makes a lot of sense. God has kept his promise to make a dead nation live again. Certainly, I make no claim to be wiser than the Covenant theologians, but history has provided further revelation and will continue to do so as events unfold and we see how they fit with Scripture.
As events unfold, the clear and literal meaning of the prophecies is revealed. This is why, as Luke 2:25-32 records, Simeon was able to understand so clearly that Jesus was the promised Messiah of Israel. This is also why Anna was able to discern the same truth. Neither of them would have been able to understand the truth if the Holy Spirit had not made it clear to them. However, it is important to understand that not one of us is able to understand the Word of God without the Spirit of God. The Spirit gives understanding to all who seek the Lord wholeheartedly as Daniel did. God wants us to understand. He gave us prophecy to give us insight and understanding, not to confuse us.
I said there were a couple of things worth noting in Gabriel’s opening statement, and insight and understanding is just the first one. The second is that Gabriel tells Daniel, “…you are very precious to God.”
These word translated “very precious to God” in the NLT is translated “greatly beloved” or “highly esteemed” by other translations. This is a translation of the Hebrew word “חֲמוּד֖וֹת,” (chamad) which means, to covet. It is the word used in the Ten Commandments when it says, “Thou shalt not covet.” When used in this bad sense, it refers to an inordinate, ungoverned, selfish desire, such as lust or greed. It is also used to describe idolatrous tendencies of delighting in things to the point of worship. However, it is used in a good sense to describe the delight we can find in God’s Word in Psalm 119. It is God’s delight in Daniel that explains His desire to make His plans clear to Daniel. Notice the people that God has delighted in: Noah, Moses, Abraham, David, Elijah, Isaiah and others. They all received revelations of who God is and what He was or is planning to do.
The Church is the bride of Christ. We know that He loves us. He gave His life for us. He delights in us. In John 15:15, Jesus says:
I no longer call you slaves, because a master doesn't confide in his slaves. Now you are my friends, since I have told you everything the Father told me. (NLT)
Jesus said he had told the apostles everything the Father told Him. In addition, because of His love, He promised to send the Holy Spirit. In keeping His promise, He has given us His Holy Spirit, and it is His Holy Spirit that makes the truth known to us. In John 16:13, Jesus says:
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own but will tell you what he has heard. He will tell you about the future. (NLT)
Jesus promised the Holy Spirit would guide us into all truth and tell us about the future. He does this because He delights in us. However, our understanding is not automatic. We need to do what Gabriel encouraged Daniel to do. In Daniel 9:23, Gabriel told Daniel, “Listen carefully so that you can understand the meaning of your vision.” Paul gave the same sort of encouragement to Timothy when he said:
Work hard so you can present yourself to God and receive his approval. Be a good worker, one who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly explains the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15, NLT)
The KJV said, “Study to shew thyself approved unto God…”
There is much that can be discerned about the times we are living in just by paying attention to the Word of God. As God’s people, we must be people of the Word. If anyone teaches something inconsistent with God’s Word, they are not to be trusted.
As we look at the troubling events in the world around us, I want to encourage you with the word of Paul to the Thessalonians.
9For God chose to save us through our Lord Jesus Christ, not to pour out his anger on us. 10Christ died for us so that, whether we are dead or alive when he returns, we can live with him forever. 11So encourage each other and build each other up, just as you are already doing. (1 Thessalonians 5:9-11, NLT)