And there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in diverse places.
All these are the beginning of sorrow.
Signs of the times.
Signs of the coming of the Lord cause the church I to lift up her head in eager anticipation and prayerful waiting.
Many signs have already appeared on the stage of history, many are evident around us every day, and there are still more to come.
There have always been signs in the church. False teachers have arisen. These are the hirelings that Jesus warned us would come, who stealthily work their way into the sheepfold as thieves and robbers to kill the sheep. They are the wolves that Paul said would come, arising from within the church, speaking perverse things to draw away disciples after them. False teachers are more prevalent than ever, privily bringing in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord Who atoned for our sins upon the cross. Many people follow their pernicious ways and are the cause that the church is evil spoken of. Be not deceived! The sheep of Jesus Christ have a spiritual sensitivity to distinguish the voice of the Shepherd from that of false prophets who are bringing swift destruction upon themselves and upon their blind followers.
There have been signs in the world. This earth has every semblance of a bloody battle field. Rarely is there a generation that does not experience the horrors of war. As the end approaches, one wave of warfare follows in the wake of another, so that a warweary, bleeding humanity cries out: “Will wars never cease, will peace never come?” Wars and rumors of war, so that one king sets his throne upon the ashes of his predecessor’s. Internal unrest rocks and disturbs the nations of the earth. Dissensions, riots, revolutions have become commonplace for a greedy, jealous, proud race of sinners. Let the church of Jesus Christ rest assured that these things must come to pass before the counsel of the Most High is fully carried out. Let them be patient, for the end is not yet.
Signs appear in creation, for Jesus speaks of famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in divers places. The church must witness and experience those also. Still she must tell herself: “The end is not yet.”
Famine is a frightening word, even though most of us do not fully realize all its horrors. We know about crop failures, food shortages, recessions in the economy, even depression. But a famine dwarfs all these into unimportance. We complain of spiraling food prices, especially when wages fail to meet the high cost of living, or work and jobs become scarce. We talk of tightening the belt, limiting our spending, cutting down on luxuries; and yet no one feels the keen edge of famine that can cut so deeply into our family life. We say we are hungry at times, yet none of us has gone without a sound meal or experienced the gnawing pangs of starvation, the excruciating agony that screams into the soul with bitter anxiety. It is painful to see a field infested with grasshoppers or seared brown with the heat of the sun, to hear bleating sheep crying for food. Worse spectacles are the bloated animals that gave up the search, empty larders, children crying pathetically with the cry that cannot be pacified, or worse, crying not at all, exasperated mothers wiping away a weary tear, and fathers too bone-weary even to weep.
Egypt knew about that during the time when God’s hand lay heavily upon them, issuing blow after blow until the ten was full. Israel in the days of Elijah felt the visitations of God in a dry and thirsty land, even until the time, and times, and half a time had been made full upon a people who had forsaken God to worship Baal, the “god of fruitfulness, rain and of sunshine.”
In this country we may not know what it is like to drive the hungry wolf from the door, yet we need not go far beyond our homes to find people who know little else than a bare existence. Not far from our shores are people who eat whatever the land produces, but scarcely know what a well-balanced diet means. There are children with the distended abdomens of starvation, adults with emaciated bodies and stunted minds, dwarfed by hunger. The world-wide recession should warn us that it can happen to us.
Jesus speaks of pestilences, or plagues.
Immediately we are reminded of the ever-reassuring ninety-first Psalm: “He that-sitteth in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, He is my Refuge and my Fortress: my God; in Him will I trust. Surely He shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence. . . . Thou shall not be afraid of the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day; nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday. A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee. Only with thine eyes shalt thou behold and see the reward of the wicked.” Is not that a beautiful way to assure the believer that even though he should die in famine, his death is a passage into glory?
Throughout history there have been times when the pestilence swept away its thousands, like a grim reaper mowing down his harvest. There was such a plague, in David’s time. There was the black plague of the Middle Ages. There was the dreadful outbreak of influenza during the first world war both in Europe and America. Taken in a broader scope, pestilence can also refer to contagious diseases that have taken their toll throughout the centuries. Modern medicine boasts, of having overcome most of these diseases, like polio, small-pox, and others; yet new forms of virus, new diseases continue to make their appearance. This is to say nothing of the social diseases that have reached epidemic proportions right here in our own country as a direct visitation of God upon the immoral lives of young and old.
Finally, Jesus mentions earthquakes in divers places.
Earthquakes were not uncommon in Palestine even in the old dispensation. The Psalmist speaks of the mountains trembling and shaking, dancing like a calf and skipping like a young unicorn. We read of mountains melting before the power of the Almighty. There is reference in the prophecies to the great earthquake in the days of Uzziah, which is immediately associated by the prophet Zechariah with the return of Christ with all His saints. No one should overlook the fact that there was a great earthquake at the moment when Jesus gave up the ghost on the cross. The veil of the temple was rent from the top to the bottom, rocks were rent and shattered, while the graves of saints were opened when Jesus died. Again on the morning of the resurrection, when the angel descended from heaven to visit the tomb of Joseph, the earth quaked, the stone that barred the entrance to Jesus’ grave rolled away, and the guards fell to the ground as if they had been slain in battle.
Earthquakes have a language all their own. They strike with full force, often without any warning. One can see a storm approaching, but to date earthquakes have defied all ,attempts at predicting their coming. The earth totters, rolls, and trembles. There is absolutely nothing that is stable, nothing to cling to. There are constant reports today of tremors and severer earthquakes. These upheavals destroy countless lives and millions of dollars in property almost yearly, to say nothing of the enormous fear they engender.
Famines, pestilence, earthquake. All these signs have something to say to us.
The first two, famine and pestilence, are often the painful aftermath of war. After the slaughter and destruction of the battlefield, symbolized by the red horse, we see the dreaded march of the black and the pale green horses, whose victims are legion. These in turn are followed by such visitations as tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, and the like, all represented in the text by earthquakes. There is a climactic order here that should fill the soul with holy fear, for these are awe so me judgments; hunger, loathsome diseases, devastating upheavals of the earth. No wonder that the final judgment is described in the book of Revelation as accompanied by “voices, and thunders, and lightnings; and there was a great earthquake, such as was not since men were upon the earth, so mighty an earthquake and so great.”
Yet we tend to become accustomed even to these thunderings of the Almighty. Not so long ago these catastrophes were referred to as acts of God. In our scientific age these same events are explained from natural causes, freaks of nature, which take place entirely outside of the providence of God. God is not in all their thoughts! We are reminded of that ever recurring testimony against the hardened sinners of our age: “And they repented not!” That is a certain sign that there will be no further delay in the coming of the Lord.
What is most significant in this passage of Scripture is the fact that Jesus speaks of all these things as “sorrows,” that is, labor pains, or birth pangs. It plainly refers to the pains of a woman who is in labor to give birth to a child. This is a familiar figure used throughout Scripture, with its own striking significance. Labor pains include both excruciating agony and intense effort. Solomon speaks of the misery of life as the travail of the sons of men. Isaiah refers to the sufferings of Christ as the travail of His soul. Since pain is the result of sin, Christ had to bear willingly that part of our curse also. Birth pangs are different from other sufferings in this sense, that they are perfectly natural. They are the necessary strain and effort to bring forth the child. One does not become unduly alarmed about them, as if some strange threatening had befallen the expectant mother. She herself is prepared for this bitter experience. There is even eager anticipation in this agony. These pains are borne in hope. When the pain is over it is also soon forgotten in the joy that a child has been brought into this world. Only the mother who has held and seen her child for the first time knows what a thrill it is to have undergone the experience.
Jesus uses the figure of sorrows to describe the signs He had just mentioned, signs in nature, famines, pestilence, earthquakes. We are reminded of what Paul writes in Romans eight: “For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.” He reminds us that this had not been the case in the beginning. In paradise all creation rejoiced, telling the praises of its Maker. The king of the earthly creation joined in this chorus with his whole being. But the king rebelled against his sovereign Friend, became an enemy of God and brought God’s wrath upon himself. When the king fell his entire kingdom fell with him. The curse spread over the entire earth. Have you never heard that groaning of the creature on a stormy night when the wind howled through the trees? Have you never seen the animal cringe in terror under the shattering crash of lightning and thunder? Have you not heard the earth moan in the heat of summer; or heard the rustling of the dry sand of the desert? Have you not felt the shuddering earth during an earthquake, or heard its rumblings. All creation groans under the curse of the Almighty.
As believers we hear a sigh of hope in all these groanings. The Holy Spirit tells us that this groaning is the travail of all creation, as it eagerly anticipates sharing in the adoption of sons, the salvation of the church. When Christ died He redeemed His people as His friend-servants, as kings of the earthly creation. “For God so loved the world (the whole creation as it belongs to Christ and His elect) that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16) “For the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the sons of God.” (Rom. 8:21).
This suffering in hope is especially evident in the sign of the earthquake. Obviously, an earthquake speaks, first of all, of devastation, death. Anyone who has experienced an earthquake knows that the very foundations of the earth are shaken, there is just nothing that is stable. Towering mountains roll, rocks crumble, houses collapse in a moment. Puny man realizes how helpless he really is.
An earthquake also speaks of hope. The people of God hear Christ say: “Behold, I make all things new.” Already centuries ago, Haggai prophesied: “Yet once, it is a little while, and I will shake the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land; and I will shake all nations, (and now notice) and the Desire of all nations shall come: and I will fill this house with glory, saith the Lord of hosts.” An earthquake told of Jesus’ death and resurrection; how entirely proper that it should announce His second coming!
One thing must not escape us, and that is that famines, pestilences and earthquakes are but the beginning of sorrows. These are but the early birth pangs, forebodings of far worse bearing down pains that are still to come. A mother in the early stages of labor knows that worse agony must follow before she is delivered. Yet the very fact that the pains are begun give hope that the end is near.
Let the church of Jesus Christ take note of the signs of the times. May they spur her on to pray in greater intensity: “Father, hallowed be Thy Name; Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.” With a watchful eye and an attentive ear, let us redeem the time, for the days are evil. May we ever plead in longing: “Come, Lord Jesus, yea, quickly.