ur church was born out of a powerful proclamation of the soon return of the Lord in glory. The small group of believers were firmly persuaded that the coming of Christ was about to take place. That conviction was based on the fulfillment of biblical prophecies and of the signs that were to precede that event. The prophecies of Daniel and Revelation, along with Matthew 24, occupied a central place in the study of the pioneers as they searched for understanding. Together with them, we firmly believe that “the fast-fulfilling signs of the times declare that the coming of Christ is near at hand. The days in which we live are solemn and important” (Ellen G. white, Lift Him Up, p. 356).
The End-time Remnant as a Sign
The Bible provides a number of signs that function as harbingers of the return of our Lord. I will discuss the significance of those signs. But first, I want to mention a sign about which we do not usually talk. It is a sign that points to the fact that God’s design for His people is being fulfilled within history. The presence of the end-time remnant people of God is such a sign.
It is a sign, first, in that it appeared in history at the time indicated in Scripture. Bible prophecy described the attack of God’s enemies against Christ (Rev. 12:4, 5) and predicted the continual attack against the church itself (Rev. 12:13-16). Early in its history, the church faced opposition from different angles. The social, religious, and legal pressures experienced by the church during difficult and not so difficult times resulted in some unfortunate casualties in the area of biblical truth (e.g., Dan. 7:25; 8:11, 12; 2 Thess. 2:3, 4). But God never abandoned His church. He was constantly calling it to reformation. Prophecy indicated that toward the close of the cosmic conflict an endtime remnant would be raised up. That happened at the precise moment (Rev. 12:17). The fulfillment of that prophecy demonstrates that God’s plan was being developed as He intended it to be. The existence of the remnant is not a denial of God’s interest in the rest of the Christian world. On the contrary, the presence of the remnant indicates that God has not rejected the Christian world, but that He is looking for ways to use them to His glory if they so wish. The end-time remnant is a sign of hope for Christianity and for the non-Christian world.
Second, the remnant is a sign in that it can be identified. In order for a sign to be useful and fulfill its purpose it has to be visible (e.g., famine, earthquakes, war). The specific characteristics of the remnant facilitate identifying it as a place where the Lord is doing a particular work for the benefit of the rest of His people everywhere in the world. They keep
the commandments of God and they have the testimony of Jesus (Rev. 12:17), the faith of Jesus, and the patience of the saints (Rev. 14:12). They cannot hide and neither can they be ignored. They are easily identifiable, and as such they are a living sign of the work of God in the world.
Third, the end-time remnant is a sign in that it points beyond itself to a greater reality. It points, through the fulfillment of its mission, to the consummation of Christ’s work of salvation at the moment of His second coming. There is a purpose for the existence of the remnant; it has a specific mission to the world (Rev. 14:6-12). Therefore, it is a sign present and accessible around the world. In a sense, its global presence facilitates its function as a sign. As we get closer and closer to the return of Christ, it is necessary for the world to know about it and for people from all nations and races to understand its significance and prepare for it. The end-time remnant is a sign of God’s loving service to others through them.
Significance of the Signs
The many signs of the second coming of Christ have been and continue to be important in the life of the church. I certainly encourage church members to continue to observe the events taking place around us and to see in them also the presence of God reminding us about our blessed hope. The signs still retain their relevance for us in several ways.
First, they serve to keep our eyes fixed on our hope. Hopes can die; they can become irrelevant and lose their meaning. The book of Proverbs tells us: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick” (Prov. 13:12). Jesus did not want us to forget His promise to us, the hope that He instilled in our hearts. The signs will not only keep the memory of the hope alive but will also tell us that His promise still holds, that He has not forgotten us. The signs were to occur throughout the historical period between His ascension and His return (Matt. 24: 6-14). When occasionally some of them were fulfilled, believers were reminded of the promise of their crucified and risen Lord: “I will come back,” and this contributed to keeping hope alive in their lives. The Lord knew how important hope was going to be for His servants in a world of sin, suffering, and death. He attached to the promise of His coming the signs in order to help keep hope alive.
Second, the signs preserve within the community of believers the important element of hopeful expectation. The signs alert us to the fact that the Lord could be back sooner than we anticipate, even during our lifetime. Every generation is potentially the last generation. Hence, we live in expectation. Our lives are characterized by the conviction that He is at the door. Jesus told about the fig tree: “As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things [the signs], you know that it is near, right at the door” (Matt. 24:32, 33). A life characterized by expectation is a life oriented toward the future. It is a life free from fear because it expects only what is good, namely the fulfillment of the Christian hope.
Third, the signs should encourage us to fulfill our mission. They become a motivating force in our service to the Lord whose coming we anticipate. We share our hope because we believe that it is relevant for people in the twenty-first century. We point to Christ as the very source of our hope, but at the same time we point to the signs of His coming to encourage others to hope. Perhaps that explains the presence of an element of vagueness in the signs. They cannot be used to pinpoint the specific moment of the coming of Christ. That was never their intended purpose. They are particularly related to the mission of the church. Their presence throughout the history of the Christian church runs parallel with the fulfillment of the mission of the church between the ascension and the Second Coming. Jesus illustrated the close connection between the two: “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns” (verses 45, 46). A proper understanding of the signs will contribute to keeping the church oriented toward its mission. This is what being ready for the coming of Christ means for believers. The believers are ready when the Lord comes if the Master finds them fulfilling the task assigned to them (verse 46).
A Word of Caution
Our interest in the signs of the Second Coming must be a healthy interest based on clear biblical information. Our study of biblical prophecy should result in the strengthening of our hope and of our commitment to the Lord, who died to save us. If it results in fear, uncertainty, and prejudice against others, there is something wrong with the way we are reading the signs of the coming of Christ. We should become better Christians as we explore God’s plan for His people at the end of the cosmic conflict. We should be cautious not to speculate about what we do not know. Acknowledging that we do not know all the details of what will happen as we get closer to the end is healthy. Otherwise, we will be tempted to read into contemporary social or religious events signs that are not there. This creates an excitement that is damaging for a properly balanced Christian life. We should speak with certainty about that which is clearly stated in Scripture and refrain from sharing our personal speculations as if they were divine revelations. Bizarre interpretations of the Scriptures tend to discredit the wonderful value of our hope, making it a target of ridicule. Let us protect our hope from such damage by remaining loyal to what we really know and proclaim as a church and by restraining the urge to speculate about what we do not know.
There is another danger—ignoring the signs, considering them to be irrelevant. Such an attitude reveals disillusionment with the Christian hope. It is one of the first indicators that hope is dying in the heart of a believer. The element of expectation soon dies and personal interest in the mission of the church dies also. Ignoring the signs of the soon return of Christ would be a serious tragedy for the church as a whole and for the individual. Without hope, the church would not be the church that is being constantly reminded, through the signs, that its hope is soon to be realized. “I appeal to the members of our churches not to disregard the fulfilling of the signs of the times, which say so plainly that the end is near” (Ellen G. White, Pacific Union Recorder, Dec. 1, 1904).
We must do all we can to avoid those dangers. Being over concerned about the signs could be as bad as ignoring them. Perhaps the best way to avoid those dangers is to be scripturally informed about the hope that God has entrusted to His remnant people and to allow it to mold our whole existence in love and service to others. So, let us be prudent as we wait for the coming of the Lord. The signs tell us that He is at the door.
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND SHARING
1. The reading mentions two dangers to be avoided in connection with the signs. What are they, and which is the more dangerous in your life?
2. What do you think is the most important sign?
Jan Paulsen is the president of the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church.