Signs of the times (Matthew 16:1–4)

It’s easier to predict the weather and to see the climate change.

Just once we find the phrase, signs of the times. As fascinating as it sounds, it’s not a priority in Scripture. In fact, it occurs in a critique:

Matthew 16:1-4 (my translation, compare NIV)
1 Pharisees and Sadducees approached to put him under pressure, asking him to show them a sign from heaven.
2 In reply he said, “At dusk you say, ‘It will be calm, for the heavens are red.’ 3 And in the morning, ‘Today will be stormy, for the heavens are red and threatening.’ You do know how to discern the face of the heavens, but you are unable to discern the signs of the times. 4 An evil and adulterous generation seeks a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” Leaving them behind, he moved away.

Representatives from Judaism’s two major strands joined forces, challenging Jesus to show them an indication (sign) that he functioned with the authority of God (heaven). By asking for a sign from heaven, they sowed doubt among those who thought he could be a prophet.

Jesus refused the challenge to prove he was speaking and acting for God. He said they wouldn’t recognize a sign from heaven if they saw one. They might understand what the heavens (skies) say when it comes to the weather, but they had no idea of the significance of the times they lived in.

There are minutes and moments. Minutes tick away every day, but moments are those special times when everything changes. There had been God-moments in Israel’s story: Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, … But in their own time they missed the significance of someone greater than Solomon (12:42), someone who was David’s Lord (22:43). They missed the signs heaven sent them that they were living in the greatest of all times.

The foundational generation of the earlier covenant had been like that too. Despite all the signs as God led them out of Egypt, that generation mistrusted God’s leadership and missed the Promised Land. Jesus compared his own generation to key moments when they missed God’s leading in the past (Matthew 12:39-45; 17:17; 23:36, compare Deuteronomy 32:5).

He knew this generation would refuse to recognize him as their heaven-sent leader. Like their ancestors, they would refuse to follow his leadership, killing the God-sent messenger, as their ancestors had done (Matthew 23:33-37).

The heaven-sent sign to confirm his authority would be the sign of Jonah (explained in 12:39-41). A spokesman greater than Jonah would come back from the dead on the third day with heaven’s authority, proclaiming God’s kingdom to the nations. Would they recognize the sign? Or were they an evil and adulterous generation seeking signs with no intention of submitting to heaven’s authority?

Jonah’s sign indicated turbulent times for Jesus in the months ahead. This was his message for those who did recognize his authority (16:16-21). But for those who could not see their heaven-sent king, this story ends with an overcast sky: Leaving them behind, he moved away.

Signs of end times?

The popular approach to this phrase in our culture is pattern-matching Bible sayings with events of our times such as Covid or the Russian war. YouTube is full of preachers recounting the frightening events of our times: nations rising against nations, wars and rumours of wars, famines and earthquakes in various places, with tribulation and stars falling from the sky — phrases borrowed from the “small apocalypse” (Matthew 24).

But despite the headings added by some translations, “signs of the end times” is not a phrase in that chapter, or anywhere else in Scripture. In fact, “signs of the times” is nowhere except Matthew 16:3, where it refers not to end times but to the failure of Jesus’ contemporaries to recognize his authority in their time.

Jesus was right. It is a self-obsessed and God-resistant generation that seeks signs. We bend history and Scripture around ourselves, to make it all about us, in our time. We imagine the Old Testament prophets must have been speaking of us, the events of our own generation. It’s almost as if Jesus must return now that I have arrived on the scene.

Seeking signs of the end is a tangent that diverts us from the mission Christ gave us. Heaven has already given us the sign of his authority by raising him from the dead. While earth does not yet fully recognize his authority, that day will come. His authority guarantees it.

Signs of our times

The resurrection of Christ from the dead (Jonah’s sign) is heaven’s declaration of his authority: through the Spirit of holiness he was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 1:4). That is heaven’s sign for our times.

He will reign until all things are under his feet, restoring what God intended earth to be when he created it. We look forward to his appearance as Lord of all. Not by the might of military force, but by the sacrificial power of his cross our resurrected Lord will be exalted over all his enemies, with his resurrected people sharing in his reign (1 Corinthians 15:20-28).

Those are the signs that identify the era we live in, the signs of his authority from heaven, for all the people of the earth.

What others are saying

Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2004), 338:

Out of the resurrection of Christ, joy throws open cosmic and eschatological perspectives that reach forward to the redemption of the whole cosmos. A redemption for what? In the feast of eternal joy all created beings and the whole community of God’s creation are destined to sing their hymns and songs of praise. This should not be understood merely anthropomorphically: the hymns and praises of those who rejoice in the risen Christ are, as they themselves see it, no more than a feeble echo of the cosmic liturgy and the heavenly praise and the uttered joy in existence of all other living things.

Joshua W. Jipp, The Messianic Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2020), 404:

The Scriptural promise for God to rule the world through a righteous, just, and peace-loving messianic king is ultimately fulfilled in the surprising manner of the King’s death and resurrection. This results in an ethic whereby God’s people entrust themselves and their causes to God and not to the violent coercive methods of the human kings, kingdoms, and governments of this world. Forgiveness, the rejection of violence, non-oppressive economic practices, peace-making and reconciliation, and solidarity with the vulnerable and marginalized may often have the appearance of weakness, but they are the appropriate practices for Christ’s people engaging matters of power in this world. Those who resist evil and actively pursue truth-telling, loyalty to Christ, and hope are promised the eschatological reward of vindication whereby, with their resurrected bodies, they will rule in Christ’s kingdom where the powers of Satan, Sin, and Death have all been subjected to Christ’s messianic kingship.

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Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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