In my introduction to the biblical teaching about the “signs of the times” I suggested, following the lead of Anthony Hoekema, that these signs can be divided into three groups. The first group of signs bespeaks the present working and triumph of God’s grace in Christ. Here we considered the signs of the preaching of the gospel to all the nations and the salvation of “all Israel.” The second group refers to those signs that disclose the conflict between Christ and the anti-Christ, between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world. Here we considered the signs of tribulation (including the Great Tribulation), apostasy and the anti-Christ. Now that we have considered these first two groups and their individual signs in our preceding articles, only the third group, those signs dealing with God’s judgment in anticipation of the great judgment to come, remains.
These signs of God’s judgment are like so many reminders that God’s work of redemption in Christ has not been concluded, but that it soon will be. Furthermore, they remind us that God’s kingdom will triumph over all of His enemies and that, in the day of judgment to come, all the unrighteousness and wickedness of the sinful creature will be exposed to and come under the judgment of God. Like those signs which have already been considered, they serve to indicate the tension of this period in the history of redemption, between the time of Christ’s first advent and His second advent. They not only speak of the conflict in history that continues between the work of Christ and His enemies, but they also promise and point forward to the consummation of the ages, the great day of Christ’s coming in glory to judge the nations and peoples in righteousness.
IDENTIFYING THESE SIGNS OF JUDGMENT
As we have so often seen, these signs of God’s judgment are most prominently mentioned in the “Olivet Discourse” of our Lord, in His reply to the disciples’ question regarding the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the end of the age. In this discourse, our Lord declares:
And you will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not frightened, for those things must take place, but that is not yet the end. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and in various places there will be famines and earthquakes. But all these things are merely the beginning of birth pangs (Matt. 24:6–8).
In the parallel passage in the gospel of Luke, there are two slight differences in the language used to describe these signs; the earthquakes mentioned are said to be “great” and, in addition to the sign of famine, the sign of “plagues” or “pestilences” is mentioned. The language of the parallel passage in Mark 13:7–8 is virtually identical to that of Matthew 24.
Since these signs wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, pestilences and famines are so familiar and vivid in the minds of many believers, it will be useful to make a number of interpretive comments about them. These comments are especially necessary, given the amount of misunderstanding that often accompanies the awareness of these signs.
It is interesting to observe, for example, that all of these signs have antecedents in the Old Testament. In my introduction to the signs of the times in general, I noted that they are to be considered within the context of the broader history of redemption, especially the history preceding the first coming of Christ and the establishment of the new covenant in His blood. This feature of the signs of the times is especially evident, when we contemplate these signs of God’s judgment. Indeed, when the Lord Jesus Christ speaks of nation rising up against nation and kingdom against kingdom. He is using the language of Isaiah 19:2 and 2 Chronicles 15:6. Moreover, the presence of earthquakes as a signal of God’s direct working in history frequently occurs in the Old Testament (compare Judges 5:4–5; Pss. 18:7; 68:8; Isa. 24:19; 29:6; 64:1). The signs of plagues and famines are also evident in the preceding history of the Lord’s dealings with the nations in general and Israel in particular (compare Exodus 7–11 [the plagues upon Egypt]; Deut. 28:15ff.; Jer. 15:2; Ezek. 5:16–17; 14:13). None of these signs, therefore, is new. They continue what might almost be termed a “pattern” of the Lord’s dealings with the nations.
This pattern indicates the presence of the Lord in history in the way of judgment upon the sinful rebellion and disobedience of the nations and His own people. These judgments do not imply that all who suffer on their account are personally guilty and the special objects of God’s wrath (compare Luke 13:43). They represent the fact that the world still lies under the curse of God (Gen. 3:17). They remind us that the wrath of God continues to be revealed from heaven against all the ungodliness and wickedness of men (Rom. 1:18). As signs of God’s just displeasure with the sinfulness of the nations, they prefigure and anticipate the great day of judgment to come when the justice of God will be manifested in the judgment exercised by Christ (Acts 17:31). As such they are a continual reminder that the judge is at the door (James 5:9).
Another interesting feature of this group of signs is that they do not promise, in the strictest sense, that the end of the age has come. In Matthew 24:4, Christ adds to His words about these signs, “[f]or the end is not yet.” Then, in a phrase that characterizes all of these signs, He remarks that “all these are the beginnings of the birth pangs” (v. 8). Thus, like the other signs of the times we have considered, these signs are not to be relegated to a brief period just prior to the end of the age. Nor should they be cited as clear evidence that the return of Christ is imminent, as so often is done (because we hear of wars and rumors of wars, we must be living in the time just prior to Christ’s coming again).
Rather, these signs describe features of the Lord’s dealings with the nations that will characterize the entire period between Christ’s first and second advents. Even the language used (“the beginnings of the birth pangs”) reminds us that the travail and distress of this present period in redemptive history will be extensive and prolonged. This language is reminiscent of similar language in Romans 8:22, where the apostle Paul speaks of “the whole creation…groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present moment.” So long as Christ remains seated at the Father’s right hand, His dominion over the nations will take the form not only of the gathering of His people but also the exercise of judgments which prefigure and anticipate the great day of judgment to come.
Accordingly, these signs of judgment are an indication of the present rule and certain triumph of Christ’s kingship in all the earth and over all the nations. By no biblical measure are these signs to be contemplated as evidence of failure or uncertainty respecting the coming of God’s kingdom; they are, rather, one clear body of evidence for its presence and eventual triumph.
THE BATTLE OF ARMAGEDDON
When addressing this group of signs of God’s judgment, one of the wars or battles associated with the end times, the battle of Armageddon, cannot be ignored. If for no other reason, it cannot be ignored because it has been the object of so much dispute and often useless speculation in the history of the church. More positively, it cannot be ignored because it is one of those signs mentioned in the Bible that will portend the consummation of the present age.
It may be surprising to many people, especially in view of the popular interest in the subject of Armageddon, that this battle is only explicitly mentioned as an end-time event in Revelation 16:16. There we read, “[t]hen they gathered the kings together to the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon.” In this context, the battle of Armageddon occurs after the sixth angel has poured out the sixth bowl of wrath on the Euphrates (v. 12). The kings who gather together at this place are gathered under the leading of demonic spirits in opposition to God and His people (vv. 13–14). We are also told that they gather “for the war of the great day of God, the Almighty” (v. 14), prior to the pouring out of the seventh and last bowl of God’s wrath in anticipation of the final victory of the Lamb of God over all His enemies (Rev. 17). Strikingly, this great battle occurs in the midst of a series of events in which God’s just wrath is being poured out upon the nations, accompanied by such signs as famines, pestilences, earthquakes and the like. The setting and measuring of this sign, therefore, fits well with what we have already noted regarding this group of signs of God’s judgment in the period prior to the end of the age.
Though this is the only instance in the New Testament where the battle of Armageddon is expressly mentioned, there are a number of passages in the book of Revelation that speak of the war or the battle that will take place prior to the final victory of Christ and His people over their enemies (e.g.: Rev. 17:14; 19:19; 20:8). This language is the language of “apocalyptic,” describing end-time events in language reminiscent of earlier Scriptural prophecies, and therefore ought not to be pressed in too literalistic a direction. But it is language nonetheless that underscores the present reality and future intensification of opposition to the Lord and His church, opposition whose futility and certain defeat is symbolized in terms of the great victory that will be won in this final battle/upheaval at the close of the age. The battle of Armageddon fits well with the general biblical teaching that, with the approaching of Christ’s second advent, opposition to His rule will intensify but be definitively overcome in the day of the Lord’s appearing. Furthermore, it should not be overlooked that this theme of a great and final conflict echoes several prophetic passages in the Old Testament. For example, in Joel 3:2 we are told that when Jerusalem, the city of God, is restored, all the nations will be gathered together against it in the valley of Jehoshaphat. In Zechariah 14:2, the Lord declares that in the future He “will gather all the nations to Jerusalem to fight against it.” Similarly, in Ezekiel 38 and 39, there are references to a great battle on the mountains of Israel in which Gog. chief prince of Meshech, will be defeated (passages to which allusion is made in Rev. 19:19 and 20:8, both of which speak of a final war between the Lord and His enemies). These passages suggest, as a kind of prophetic theme or motif, that the conclusion of God’s redemptive working in history will be signaled by a great warfare between Himself and His enemies, the end of which will be the latter’s utter destruction.
Perhaps this helps to provide a context for the specific reference to this final war or battle as the battle of Armageddon. The apostle John identifies this language as bemg denved from the Hebrew. This suggests that the reference is most likely to Mount Megiddo, a site on the great plain of Esdraelon in Issachar, near the valley of Jezreel (compare Judges 5:19). Thus, the battle of Armageddon hearkens back to the great battle recorded in Judges 4 and 5, a battle in which the Lord led His people to victory over her enemies. Mount Megiddo was a strategic military stronghold at which many important battles and wars were fought in Israel’s history (compare also Judges 6:33; 1 Sam. 31; 2 Sam. 4:4; 2 Kings 23:29–30; 2 Kings 9:27). In the account in Judges 4 and 5, we are told that Israel, the people of God, were oppressed by the Canaanite King, Jabin, and his general, Sisera. In this circumstance of oppression. Israel was, humanly speaking, in an impossible position. How could Israel stand against their enemy’s nine hundred chariots of iron,when she did not even have a spear or a shield Judges 5:8)? And yet the Lord Himself, through the judges Deborah and Barak, led His people in a great and marvelous victory over their enemies! To appreciate the significance of this Victory, one must read, the account and the celebration in song of the Lord’s triumph composed by Deborah and Barak (Judges 5).
If you take these Old Testament antecedents into account, the meaning of the language of the battle of Armagedden in Revelation 17 becomes clear. This meaning confirms what we have already seen regarding this group of signs of God’s Judgment, a group of which the battle of Armageddon is but one specimen.
The battle of Armageddon is a sign and reminder that, as the end approaches and the return of Christ becomes ever more imminent, opposition to the gospel and the kingdom of Christ will intensify. This opposition will issue in a final battle, signifying the Lord’s judgment upon the nations and the certain triumph of His cause in the earth. Even as things appear most hopeless for the people of the Lord, suddenly and dramatically Christ will come to His people in victory and triumph to crush both His and their enemies under His feet. Accordingly, it is fitting that we conclude our treatment of all the signs of the times, including this group signaling God”s Judgment in history upon His enemies, with the sign of the battle of Armageddon. For this sign confirms the one grand theme we have found interwoven throughout the Scriptural teaching regarding the signs of the times: as the present age draws to a close, and as the antithesis between the kingdom of God and of this world intensifies, the certainty of the accomplishment of God’s redemptive purposes in Christ and for His people becomes all the more clear! Nothing—not even the combined opposition of the kings/leaders of the nations against the Lord’s anointed and His people—will be able to prevent Christ’s dominion from reaching its appointed end, the subjection of all things to Him and the defeat of all His enemies, including the last enemy, death (1 Cor. 15).
1. Interestingly, this song refers to an earthquake that accompanied the Lord’s victory (v.5). In Rev. 16:18 the presence of earthquakes is also associated with events which follow after the battle of Armageddon. All of this suggests that the battle of Armageddon signifies the day of the Lord’s presence in judgment and victory over His enemies, and typified by this earlier day of victory in the time of the Judges.
Dr. Venema, editor of this department, teaches Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, IN.