The Signs of the Times

Matthew 16:1-4


The signs of the times. I wonder, can we read them? I just saw an expose on cell phones. It is possible to bug cell phones in such a way that someone else can listen to what is happening in the room even when the cell phone is turned off. This technology has been used for people stalking other people. There are entertainment centers being manufactured today where you don’t even need a remote control, because the television reads your body signals and has facial, vocal, and body recognition software. Of course, we already know about GPS, and satellite technology that is accurate to within inches anywhere in the world. On the internet, Google, the popular internet search engine, is currently putting every single book whose copyright has run out on the internet for free download. That is a revolution in education that will match the invention of the printing press. We live in an incredible age of discovery, invention, technology, and utter, complete, spiritual blindness. It is difficult to imagine an age more saturated with information. We call this age the information age. And yet, what are people doing with this information? Do they recognize the signs of the times, and are they using this information for the glory of God? Or are they building castles in the wind, imaginary kingdoms for their own glory and honor? Our passage tells us that there is basically one sign of the time to which we should pay attention, and that is Jesus Christ.

It is quite remarkable, really, how stupid the Pharisees and Sadducees are in this passage. Jesus just got done with feeding four thousand people. He and His disciples filled 7 huge hampers full of leftovers, and the Pharisees and Sadducees walk up to Him and say, “Could you give us a sign?” So already we know that their intentions were anything but honorable. If curiosity were their motivation, they could have had it filled simply by listening to some of the four thousand people who had just been fed! But the text leaves us in no doubt about their intentions, for it says that they came to test Jesus. This is not a neutral word, like a scientific experiment. It is a word that means entrapment. What they want is for Jesus to do a sign, and if it is sufficiently miraculous, then they will accuse Jesus of sorcery. If Jesus does not do a sign, then they call Him a fraud.

Another fascinating thing about this passage is that the Pharisees and the Sadducees were banded together against Jesus. The reason this is remarkable is that the Pharisees and the Sadducees were normally at each other’s throats. The Pharisees held that the entire Old Testament was Scripture, that there was a resurrection from the dead, that the study of the Torah was the main issue of the Jewish faith, and were made up of people from all walks of life. The Sadducees, on the other hand, only believed that the first five books of the Old Testament were actually Scripture, didn’t believe in the resurrection, that the Temple was the main issue of the Jewish faith, and were made up of the aristocracy, the upper class. So the fact that they came together (Matthew is quite clear about this: he lumps them together quite deliberately) speaks volumes of how much they saw Jesus as a threat. The Pharisees saw Him as a threat because Jesus opposed their teaching. The Sadducees saw Him as a threat probably because they feared that Jesus would lead a rebellion against the upper class. Jesus mixed with the wrong people, you see.

Jesus’ response starts out with a discussion about signs, specifically about weather. He tells them that they are good at meteorology. They can predict the weather, probably with about as much accuracy as today’s weatherman! What Jesus is talking about is preserved in a little rhyme: “Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight; red sky at morning, shepherds take warning.” Why does Jesus start talking about the weather? What does that have to do with signs? Well, it has everything to do with the definition of what constitutes a sign, and where that sign originates. Jesus is being ironic here. The Pharisees and Sadducees ask for a sign “from heaven.” That really means “from God,” but the word they use is “heaven.” Jesus tells them about the signs in the heavens that they can read, the physical heaven. But Jesus is saying that they can’t read the signs that have to do with the spiritual heaven. And the reason for that is very simple: they wouldn’t read the sign right, because they don’t know what time it is. Understanding one of Jesus’ signs has nothing to do with how smart you are, or how much theology you’ve read. It has everything to do with how receptive you are to the message of Jesus, which is that the kingdom of heaven has arrived. In other words, the Pharisees and Sadducees wouldn’t believe Jesus even if He did perform a sign for them. But of course, Jesus never simply performs. He does a miracle when it will help people, and when they already believe. He never performs a miracle simply to put on a show.

However, Jesus does tell them about one sign, a sign that has already happened, long before Jesus’ time, in fact. It is the sign of Jonah. Jonah was three days in the belly of the great fish, and then was resurrected onto land on the third day. And just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the fish, so also was the Son of Man, Jesus, three days and nights in the belly of the earth. In other words, the sign of the times was that someone greater than Jonah had arrived on the scene, but the Pharisees and Sadducees were not receptive to the idea. They couldn’t see it. In verse 4, we hear why: they are an evil and adulterous generation. You know, sometimes I just laugh when I hear people talk about gentle Jesus, meek and mild. Here he calls the Pharisees and Sadducees evil and adulterous right to their very face! In another place He calls them a brood of vipers! He took a whip of leather thongs and drove out the moneychangers in the temple! No, the kingdom of God had come, and we had better recognize that fact!

For us, then, it is not about being able to talk about the new cellphone bugging technology, or about GPS, television, internet, or any other amazing new technology or knowledge acquired by mankind. For all such information is obsolete the minute it has been acquired. Or, for ladies, take fashion. I remember seeing a movie where (I kid you not), someone was chastised for wearing something that was out of fashion two entire weeks ago! The press to keep up with fashion and technology, and everything else is really a futile endeavor. But even more crucially, if we do such frenetic activity to keep up, we are actually behind the times. The really big news that has not become old or irrelevant like changing fashions, but instead has ushered in a completely new era of human history, is the person and work of Jesus Christ. We see this in our reckoning of years. Why do we say that it is 2009 A.D.? A.D. stands for a Latin phrase “anno Domini,” which means “the year of our Lord.” And we say “B.C.,” also, which stands for “before Christ.” This is because the coming of Christ was the most profoundly earth-shattering event that humanity has ever witnessed. That is the true sign of the times: the birth, life, crucifixion, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ, and what that means for humanity. The point is this: are we receptive to this sign? Are we receptive to the idea that Christ’s coming constitutes an entirely different view of history than most humans can even contemplate? Now, of course, we have the added difficulty of 2000 years separating us from Christ. Do we really think that Jesus can ever go out of style? That Jesus is ever irrelevant? Beware of judging Christ by today’s standards of history, fashion, internet, technology, news, or anything else that is here today, gone tomorrow. Jesus is not going away. He is with His church even to the very end of this age.

Now, this does not mean that everyone has to dress like a weirdo, and not participate in any of modern technology, internet, or any of the rest of it. The information age has many wonderful things about it. The question is this: how do we use these temporary things, these ever-changing aspects of culture, how do we use them in service to the never-changing kingdom of our Lord? We need to realize that this is the only way Christians should make use of these things. We should use them to enhance the reach of the Gospel, enable us to do our work more efficiently, so that we have more time for ministering to other people. The main problem for us is that we tend to use these things very selfishly. We like to be entertained, and so we will sit for hours in front of a television, letting our brains rot, because it’s easy. Do you realize that your brain is more active when it is asleep than when it is watching television? Not to mention the unbelievable amount of trash that is on television these days. Television is one things, I fear, that Christians should probably ditch entirely. Our family’s television is not hooked up to an antenna, so we do not watch any television at all. We watch movies occasionally, but only if we have energy for nothing else.

So what we also need, then, is discernment. Culture is not something to believe in whole hog. It is something that has good things and bad things. We must test everything by whether it is conducive to the kingdom of God or not. Is what I’m doing going to further the kingdom of God, or hinder it? We should bring every single activity we do to this touchstone, this barometer, this acid test: does it serve my Lord the King? Does it further the only kingdom worth our membership?

Let us not, then, be an evil an adulterous generation that is always asking God to come to our level and prove to us that He is who He says He is. Let us not put God to the test, as the Pharisees and Sadducees did. We have a sign. It has marked the times with indelible ink. It has posted a placard large enough for the whole world to see. It says this: “Someone greater than Jonah has come; the kingdom of God has broken in to human history; Jesus Christ is the Savior; believe in Him.”

A Response On Roman Catholicism

Here is a brief response to Bryan, and a somewhat longer response to Taylor. First Bryan.

Truth is not really what I’m talking about. I’m talking about authority. Here is a quotation from Lumen Gentium that argues precisely what I said the RCC is arguing for:

And therefore his definitions, of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, are justly styled irreformable, since they are pronounced with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, promised to him in blessed Peter, and therefore they need no approval of others, nor do they allow an appeal to any other judgment. For then the Roman Pontiff is not pronouncing judgment as a private person, but as the supreme teacher of the universal Church, in whom the charism of infallibility of the Church itself is individually present, he is expounding or defending a doctrine of Catholic faith. The infallibility promised to the Church resides also in the body of Bishops, when that body exercises the supreme magisterium with the successor of Peter. To these definitions the assent of the Church can never be wanting, on account of the activity of that same Holy Spirit, by which the whole flock of Christ is preserved and progresses in unity of faith. (I have removed the footnotes; the passage comes from paragraph 25).

This is saying that even the Bible cannot be a final court of appeal against an official ex cathedra statement from the Pope or from the supreme magisterium. They have infallibility. This is claiming infallibility for the words of mere men, and putting their words on a par with Scripture. It doesn’t matter if that isn’t what they think they are doing, that is what they are doing. On an ex cathedra matter, there is no court of appeal beyond the Pope, not even Scripture. To say that this paragraph says otherwise is to deny the plain meaning of the text. And this paragraph is cited in section 891 of the Catechism, which says the same thing. In fact, the Catechism even claims that “this infallibility extends as far as the deposit of divine Revelation itself” (then it references Lumen Gentium 25). That phrase is explained by another section of paragraph 25 of LG:

And this infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed His Church to be endowed in defining doctrine of faith and morals, extends as far as the deposit of Revelation extends, which must be religiously guarded and faithfully expounded.

As to the intercession from dead saints, I agree that it depends on the prior question of the canon. A subject for a different post.

As to transubstantiation, the Catechism clearly states that the substance of the bread and wine change into the substance of Christ’s body and blood (see paragraphs 1374-1377). The substance of the bread and wine are therefore transformed. But the form of bread and wine remain. How is this not saying that the substance has changed, but the accidents of bread and wine (the outer form) remain? In which you have the substance of Christ taking the place of bread and wine, and yet the accidents of bread and wine remaining. As I have said, this is a misappropriation of Aristotle’s categories. And Aquinas, in question 75, most certainly does assert that the substance changes into Christ’s body and blood, while the accidents of bread and wine remain (see especially article 6, where he responds to the objections levelled against that doctrine: it should be noted that the objections come first, and then follow his response to those objections). Therefore, my original comment stands.

As to the death of Christians, I do not believe that a non-believer would be freed from sin at death, because his soul is not raised from death to life. Only those whose souls have been raised from death to life (see this progression in Ephesians 2 especially) will have the guarantee that their sin nature will die at their death. So, Bryan’s comment does not follow, because he is forgetting the requirement of the prior resurrection of the soul.

Now, on to Taylor’s comments. First of all, the difference between the words “inspired” and “infallible” is not relevant to my argument in the slightest. If they claim infallibility, then they are setting up the words of men as on a par with Scripture, regardless of whether or not they regard the human words as inspired or not. Secondly, the three verses have everything to do with “Scripture alone,” because they claim that the words of Scripture are sufficient for the Christian to be well-equipped. This is the doctrine that Taylor does not understand. Is the church helpful? Sure. Is the church necessary for the Christian to be a member of it? Sure. Does this necessity mean that Scripture is not sufficient? No. Scripture alone is the infallible rule of faith and practice. 1 Thessalonians 2:13 draws a contrast between the words of men and the words of God. This means that the words of men do not effective work in a person to believe, as the end of the verse says. Only the Word of God does that. One is reminded of the words of Isaiah: “they teach as doctrines and commandments the words of men.” This is a stinging rebuke. No word of man has the authority that the word of God has. 1 John 5:9 indicates that the word of God is greater than the word of men. Period. There can be no parity. There can be no claim of infallibility on the part of any man, acting in any capacity whatsoever.

On the issue of Mary as Mediatrix, Lumen Gentium (paragraphs 60, 62, quoted in Catechism 970) does say what Taylor says about the position of Mary: it’s still wrong. Those who are dead cannot intercede on behalf of the living. That is why it is so important for us to see that Christ is alive. He can intercede for us, because He’s alive. As Hebrews says (I’m sure he had a smile on his face when he wrote this), the Old Testament priests were many, because death prevented them from continuing in office, Heb. 7:23. Yes, death would be a substantial disqualification from ministry. But if they could still intercede on our behalf, then they could still be priests.

On justification, of course the Roman Catholic church teaches a repeatable justification: this is because it is conflated with sanctification. But justification does occur at baptism. My words did not imply that that was the only time it happened in Catholic teaching. One cannot say everything every time one issues a summary. But Catholics do teach that one is justified at baptism, and so my words were not a lie of any sort.

On 1 Corinthians 6:11, of course justification is associated with washing: the blood of Christ cleanses us from the guilt of our sin, and that happens in justification. The verb, however, does not mean baptism in and of itself. Paul could have said “you were baptized.” Instead, he says “you were washed.” There is nothing in the context to indicate baptism. And the use of three terms does not mean that they should be conflated. The aorist use of these verbs does not help Taylor’s position, since they do NOT indicate a process. Paul is emphatically contrasting the previous state of his readers with the subsequent state. That change was marked by three verbs that describe different aspects of that change. So Paul is NOT talking about progressive sanctification here. By the way, Calvin can treat sanctification before justification too, as he in fact does in the Institutes. What’s the point? The beginning of sanctification occurs at the same point in time as justification. But they are distinct, because works play no part in justification, and yet are the distinctive fruit of sanctification. I do not think that Taylor has done justice to the careful exegesis of this passage. I will treat the remaining questions in another post.