The Signs Of The Times
“You know the saying, 'Red sky at night means fair weather tomorrow; red 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!” [Matt. 16:2-3 NLT]
This was an indictment that Jesus made against the religious leaders of his day. In this statement there is an expectation that knowing the signs of the times is something that can and should be known by those who have a relationship with God. Even from ancient times there were those who had the discernment to look around and see what was really going on. “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.” [1 Ch 12:32 NLT]
Signs are objects or events that indicate or point to a reality that is imminent. Most signs are supposed to be obvious enough for everyone who needs to see them and clear enough for those who see them to understand their meaning. If you are driving on a freeway and you need to get off at a particular exit, the signs along the way should point you to your destination, if you are paying attention. There are other signs, however, that are not as obvious or clear and can be misunderstood or missed all together. Missing or misunderstanding signs can be disastrous! Thus, seeing and discerning the signs of the times becomes vital and necessary if we are to know what course of action to take.
If you carefully study the ministry of Jesus as depicted in the New testament you will notice a particular mode of communication that seems to leave the hearers (and now, readers) with some questions as to what exactly is the meaning of what Jesus is saying. Jesus always used stories and illustrations like these when speaking to the crowds. In fact, He never spoke to them without using such parables [Matt. 13:34 NLT]. If what Jesus had to say was so vitally important why didn’t He just plainly say what He needed to say and leave no question unanswered and no way to possibly misunderstand His meanings?
Jesus sheds some light on His method of communication in one of His many heated discussions with the religious leaders of His day. "You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! Yet you refuse to come to me to receive this life” [John 5:39-40 NLT]. Jesus is the long awaited Messiah and He is standing right in front of the religious leaders, who prided themselves on knowing the scriptures, and they did not (actually, would not) recognize Him. How could they not see it?
To the ancient Jews, the history of their prophetic legacy was a point of national pride and hope as they treasured the sacred writings which spoke of a day of restoration through the coming of a Messiah, or Savior. Hebrew scholars would scour the texts trying to discern the who, what, where, and when of these prophecies. However, because of the great spiritual chasm that had developed and widened over the centuries between God and His people, they lost the ability to see and hear God’s Word from a spiritual point of view. This created an impotent secular-religious society that naturalized the Messiah and his kingdom to a purely humanistic revelation. The Jews of Jesus’ day were looking for their new king to come proudly prancing into Jerusalem on a white horse as a victorious conqueror over the Romans, not a blue-collar worker schlepping into town on a borrowed donkey with an entourage of Galilean hillbillies and common folk shouting in pandemonium. This was just too humiliating. If you step back and take a wide-angle view of Jesus’ teachings and sayings, many times He would offend the mind of the hearers to expose the true intentions of the heart.
As far back as the days of the great prophet, Isaiah, the nation of Israel had turned its back on the majestic covenants God had made with them and went after the enticing demonic religions that surrounded them. The deeper they slid into this darkness the less they had the ability to hear and see God. Isaiah put it like this: “Harden the hearts of these people. Plug their ears and shut their eyes. That way, they will not see with their eyes, nor hear with their ears, nor understand with their hearts and turn to me for healing" [Isa 6:10 NLT]. By Jesus’ day He called the religious leaders “blind guides” leading the blind right into a ditch. They had lost the ability to see spiritually. Jesus was with them daily, performing many signs and wonders and yet they still asked for more proof. Jesus responded by saying, “Only an evil, adulterous generation would demand a miraculous sign, but the only sign I will give them is the sign of the prophet Jonah." Then Jesus left them and went away [Matt. 16:4 NLT].
Although most of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day rejected Him, Jesus did amass quite a following. There were many who heard His words and saw the miraculous signs he performed and confessed that Jesus must be the long awaited Messiah. Yet, there was still a disconnect between Jesus and His mission to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Earth. They were still looking for an earthly kingdom that would put the nation of Israel back on top. Many times Jesus would pull His disciples aside in moments of divine frustration and privately explain the meaning of His teaching and redirect them to the spiritual truths He was releasing. Why was it so hard for these believers to really understand what was going on?
Jesus lays the ax to the roots of the problem after He performed perhaps the most powerful sign of His earthly ministry - feeding multiple thousands with a lad’s lunch. After wrapping up this ministry campaign, Jesus and His disciples were off to their next stop. Jesus takes this travel time as a teaching moment and tells His disciples to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Not getting the true meaning of what Jesus was saying, the disciples began to argue amongst themselves about whose responsibility it was to pack the bread for the trip. To the disciples, Jesus’ mention of leaven must have been another one of His veiled parables for always being prepared for a long trip by packing food.
Jesus listened to the banter for a few moments and then cuts to the quick. He reminded them that they just fed thousands of people with a few loaves of bread. If Jesus was hungry, making something from nothing was always on the menu. Jesus was amazed at the disconnect of these men in not seeing what He was really getting at. He finally has to plainly and clearly state that the leaven he was talking about was the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matt 16). Now, before we get all over the disciples for missing the meaning of what seems to be obvious we need to take a look at this leaven that Jesus was warning about.
Leaven is a substance such as yeast or baking powder that when added to dough while making bread, causes fermentation. A very small amount of leaven is needed as just a little pinch of the stuff will cause a chemical chain reaction that will eventually affect the entire lump of dough. The gasses released through this process cause the dough to expand and rise giving us the nice, fluffy, airy bread we all love. So, what’s so bad about leaven? Jesus is equating the teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees to leaven in that only a small amount of this leaven will eventually affect the entire lump of the human head and heart. What specifically was Jesus getting at?
The disciples of Jesus grew up in a religious culture where the tug of war between the two main sects of Judaism, headed up by the Pharisees and Sadducees, were in a constant power struggle for who would lead the religious practice of the nation. The Pharisees were the ultra conservatives who were pressing for the strict, literal interpretation and application of the law of Moses. They were the dos and don'ts police who kept themselves pure by avoiding all the dirty rotten sinners among the common folks and despised and wanted to totally disregard the heathen Roman overlords. The Sadducees, on the other hand, were the ultra liberals who gutted Judaism of all spirituality and made a pact with Rome that if their agenda for Israel was supported, they would become the politically correct puppets of Caesar and keep the nation of Israel loyal to Rome.
Both of these religious agendas had no room for the teaching of Jesus. All throughout the gospels Jesus calls these groups out with descriptions such as: hypocrites, blind guides, white-washed tombs, snakes, vipers, wolves, false teachers, and more. Jesus was serious about the effect that the teaching of these groups would have on His followers and His mission. Jesus used leaven as a descriptor of these teachings in that it only took a small amount of this twisted truth to have a huge effect on the entire belief system. Leaven also usually looks just like the flour, the main ingredient for bread, and is very difficult to discern which is which once it is mixed in.
Throughout Jesus’ entire ministry the effects of this leaven reared it ugly head and created cross currents and confusion in the hearts and minds of even His closest disciples. His followers kept missing the point and therefore, kept coming to the wrong conclusions. How on earth could Jesus entrust this fledgling band of believers with carrying the weight of ushering in His Kingdom when they couldn’t even agree on the meaning of Jesus’ teachings? There was still so much leaven of preconception in the minds of the disciples. They were still riding the teeter-totter of the teaching of the religious left and right. Jesus, as the Master Builder, did have the solution.
Before He left the planet, Jesus gathered His disciples and gave them two parting gifts that would enable them to correctly see, understand, and act on the truth of His words. Here is how Luke depicts this: “Now He said to them, ‘These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures [Luke 24:44-45 NASB] ... "And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high."
The future success of the ministry of Jesus flowing through His followers - The Church- hinged on the renewing of the mind and the power that the coming of the Holy Spirit would bring to the disciples to be His witnesses. From this foundation, the disciples and all that would come to believe after them, would have the ability to discern the signs of the times and determine what course of action to take.
Now, thousands of years later, the Church of Jesus is faced with another “signs of the times” challenge. There is so much unrest and division and diabolical activity in our world right now and the voice of the Body of Christ is sounding like a cacophony instead of a choir. The old leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees has worked its way into the corporate belief system and we need to root it out. The two gifts of Jesus are still available and necessary if The Church is to get into harmony and sing the song of the signs of the times the way Jesus intended it to be sung.
Over the next few posts, we will be examining the signs of our times and hopefully be able to come to a glorious crescendo and fulfill the prayer of the Apostle Paul: “so that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” [Rom 15:6 NASB]
by Pastor Jim Anan