Part 10. The Sign of the Son of Man
Matthew 24:30 “And then shall appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven, and all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming upon the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And He shall send His angels with a great trumpet, and they will assemble His elect.”
I would like to suggest that there are two items here, which at first reading seem to follow each other without a break, but in fact are separated by some considerable time. The sign, and the mourning come first, and then later there is the dramatic event of the gathering.
In this writing, I want to return to the concept of resurrection put forward in my previous series, in other words, that of a phased first resurrection, rather than a single chronological event. We saw how Paul spoke of the out-resurrection. We saw that certain Old Testament saints were looking for a “better resurrection.” We saw that the manchild was caught up to God before the woman and the rest of her seed were changed. There cannot be just one sudden removal of God’s elect, as put forward by many evangelical writings. The first resurrection is indeed a phased process. Having said this, we are now in a better position to ask the question, what did the Lord mean by the sign of His coming?
The Pharisees listened to the Lord speaking about the day of judgment, and His language was very forthright. They then asked Him for a sign. As Paul said later, the Jews were always looking for signs. Our Lord rounded on them, condemning them as an evil and adulterous generation, and refused all signs but one. “There shall no sign be given but the sign of the prophet Jonah, for as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights, so shall the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights.” (Matt.12:39-40) The Lord’s ways do not change. In our own generation we must not be looking for a sign other than the one the Lord spoke of as the only sign. And that sign precedes the trumpet call.
What does this mean? Our Lord (raised up from the dead on the third day,) immediately mentions resurrection in this context to the Pharisees. “Men of Nineveh will be resurrected in the judgment with this generation and will condemn it. . . . The Queen of the South will be raised in the judgment and will condemn this generation.”(Some raised to eternal life, some to shame and contempt)
We shall be looking for a company of people, small at first, who are raised from the dead, or changed into their new bodies, and who walk this earth just as Jesus did for 40 days. He manifested Himself to His disciples during that time. And the first group to be changed will no doubt appear to fellow believers, but in these days of rapid communication, the news will get out, and be on the front pages of all the world’s newspapers. It may take a few minutes for this to sink in, but try to imagine what effect this will have. The Lord said it would cause “mourning.” It will certainly not be a welcome event for the world, and I think it will come as a nasty shock to many Christians. All of a sudden, the Person of the Lord Jesus will be elevated. His words will ring clear with a new authority. Other religions will suddenly dim into obscurity, and Christianity will shine forth as the only truth.
These resurrected people will possess powers that cannot be duplicated by mortal man. If anger and resentment should arise, and terrorists try to murder them, they will be in for a shock. No bullet can harm. In fact all forms of hostility will merely boomerang back on themselves. God’s elect, changed into His likeness, will have a word of challenge for mankind. Multitudes of those in the Church will suddenly recognise their own bankruptcy, and will mourn, and by this means the Lord will begin to perfect a far greater multitude. But for the unbelieving world it will become an agonising moment of truth, which undoubtedly will produce a flood of conversions. But many will remain scornful, and openly hostile. Battle lines will soon be set, and the world will become a strangely new place of conflict. Last time I spoke about the Great Tribulation, and left many questions unanswered, but the scenario just outlined would be more than enough to trigger off a mighty tribulation of world-encompassing magnitude. Did the Lord refer to this time as “The hour of fiery trial which shall come upon all the inhabited earth, to test those who dwell upon the earth”? (Rev.3:10)
Those who insist that this cannot be, and who must have a single, sudden “chair lift to glory” for all Christians, will dismiss this as theologically unsound, but every year in springtime, the truths of resurrection are displayed for all mankind to see. Ask yourselves, do all plants and trees come into leaf at one and the same time? Do they not form a progression? Do not the gardeners know the sequence of the bursting forth of new life? They are able to tell you which trees will come into leaf first, and which last. So it is in the day of resurrection. There will be some who will rise quite early in God’s new spring, whilst others will bud and leaf sometime later. But all will take place in an orderly fashion. There is no one-upmanship amongst the trees. Neither will there be disorder in the progress of resurrection.
Let us have a closer look at the Lord’s one great sign. He spoke about Jonah inside the belly of the great fish. I know that in today’s society even the mention of this strange story brings mockery, but the Lord believed in Jonah, so I shall not be ashamed to talk about it. Jonah was a disobedient prophet, a man who had a true understanding of the Lord’s character, as expressed in his brief writing. But he was also a great patriot, and knew that if Nineveh repented, it would backfire on the nation of Israel, which was also in a sad condition of compromise. So he arranged for his own death as a means of preventing Nineveh from hearing the word of judgment. Then, forty days later, he knew that Nineveh would be destroyed. But God was not going to allow His plan to be scuttled that easily. Jonah went down into death, and was raised the third day. He cried to the Lord “out of the belly of hell.” (Jonah 2:2) The Lord caused the fish to deposit him on land, and in a body that showed all the signs of his experience, due to the effect of the digestive juices on his skin, plus the quickly disseminated news of the sailors, Nineveh trembled at Jonah’s word. They repented, and God’s judgment was averted.
Surely this is a picture of what it will be like when God’s new Jonahs appear in their resurrection bodies. They willinstil fear and trembling in those who see and recognise what has happened. They will know instinctively that God has performed a miracle, and will stand in awe of Him. Hence the great harvest that will be culled from the earth to the Lord’s glory. This is what we must be looking for, because the utter deadlock now present in this earth cannot be resolved by any other means. The Lord has waited for this time to arrive, before He enacts the greatest of all His plans.
Let us think about the subject of hell for a moment. The word “hell” is Sheol in Hebrew and Hades in Greek. It means “the state of death”, figuratively it is the “place” where the dead dwell, although it would be better to speak of it as the “dimension” of death. But from a studied reading of both Testaments one can learn that there are several “compartments” within the land of the dead. Our Lord descended into the land of the dead. “You will not leave my soul in hell,” (Acts 2:27-31, quoted from Psalm 16:10) “He descended into the lower parts of the earth.”(Eph.4:9) “Who will descend into the abyss? that is, to bring up Christ from the dead.” (Rom.10:7) “Christ was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which He went and preached to the spirits in prison.” (1 Peter 3:18-19) Who were these? They were the fallen angels of Noah’s day. “God spared not the angels who sinned but consigned them to pits of gloom in Tartaros, being reserved for the judgment.” (2 Peter 2:4) In other words, our Lord descended to the lowest region of “hell” before being raised from death. This was because, as the great Sin-Bearer, He carried with him the sins of the world, and that included all the worst offences that had been, or ever would be, committed.
The reason for entering into a discussion about hell is now to be revealed. It is the lot of all true believers to be identified with Christ, and in Romans Paul made much of this in his 6th chapter, where we read, “if therefore we have been planted together in the likeness of His death, we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection.”(Rom.6:5) Paul said that being baptised into Christ means being baptised into His death. This is the expression of ouridentification with Christ. All such as take these words seriously, and allow the spiritual processes to take place and be completed in accordance with the Lord’s command may therefore look forward to being identified with His resurrection, and because our Lord said that this sign would be enacted before His return , according to the sign of the prophet Jonah, we have had to consider exactly what this would cause in the eyes of the world and the church generally.
When our Lord spoke to Peter about the church He said, “Upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” (Matt.16:18) What does this mean? What are the gates of Hades, and where is the church? Nobody would suggest that the church is trying to break down the doors leading to Hades in order to get in! No, the church is here seen to be within Hades, and the Lord’s promise is that the gates will open and let His people out. All those who have died in Christ have therefore been released from the Devil’s prison house, and transported into heavenly regions in the spirit, to “Mount Zion, the City of the Living God, the HeavenlyJerusalem, . . and to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are written in heaven . . to the spirits of just men made perfect.” (Heb.12:22-23) Jesus said concerning the certainty of this that “though one should die, yet shall he live,” and this can only be properly understood by this verse in Hebrews. This great privilege comes about because our Lord went through the various departments of Hades Himself, and because of His sinless life, death was unable to hold Him. He passed through the gates that separated the various departments, and came forth in resurrection, and was able to say, “I have the keys of death and Hades.” (Rev.1:18) Notice that just as gates is plural, so are the keys to open those gates.
And so, during the last 2,000 years the Lord’s true church has been symbolised as existing within the belly of the great fish, in readiness for the Lord’s word to go forth to “vomit it out onto dry ground.” I believe this is why the early Christians chose to use the symbol of the fish to express their belief in Jesus. I am of course aware that the Greek word for fish, ICHTHUS, is made up of the initials of the Greek sentence, “Jesus Christ God’s Son, Saviour.” It is also well known that the 153 “great fishes” that Peter pulled in after the resurrection had a symbolic meaning. The Hebrew words B’NAI HA-ELOHIM, translated “sons of God” has a numerical value of 153, and John was always presenting cryptic material of this sort to his readers in his gospel.
To close I would like to quote from a word of prophecy delivered at the Exeter Prayer and Waiting Conference in December 1967 by Arthur Wallis. It connects with our theme today. About a hundred of us had been in prayer that afternoon, waiting upon God for direction for the coming days.
“Have I not chosen the pit? Is not the pit the instrument in my hand, by which I fashion and shape my servants, be they the Josephs, or the Jeremiahs, or the Jonahs? Do I not take them and place them in the pit, a place of confinement, a place of restraint, a place of seeming bondage, though it is not the bondage of the world or the bondage of the enemy. It is the bondage of your God, by which I may hold them as in a vice, and shape them and prepare them as tools for my work.
And even as I have spoken unto you this day by my servant [Hugh Thompson, who had given a talk on the prophet Jonah], so I take my Jonahs and bring them into the place of death, that I might bring them into the place of life. I bring them into the place that is dread and dark, that I might bring them into the light and liberty and fruitfulness of my purpose.
And thus my children I would not have you draw back or shrink from the pit, for is not this the way your Lord and Master went? Did He not say that He would give to the generation no sign but the sign of the prophet Jonah, that as Jonah went down into that place of death, so would He be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth? It is the way your Master went. Should not the servant tread it still? For even as you are willing for this death, so shall you also be planted in the likeness of His resurrection. Even as you are willing for this place of self-crucifixion, even as I have ministered unto you through my word, [referring to the morning Bible study based on Romans 6] this being planted in the likeness of the death of my Son, so shall you be planted in the likeness of His resurrection.
This is the place of life and liberty, and this is the place of fruitfulness, and I deal with you individually in this, and I take you down even through circumstances and situations, those that you would avoid, and those that you would eschew, and those from which you would shrink back in fear. I lead you there and bring you there by the engineering of your circumstances, that I may make you what in your hearts you long to be.”
We are now, almost 40 years later, still waiting for the Lord’s word of resurrection to go forth, and for a number this will certainly precede the final trumpet call. That is why it is so important to understand what the Lord meant when He spoke about “the sign of the Son of Man in heaven.” The Lord will still be in the heavenly regions, but His sign will be enacted on earth to the utter amazement of the whole world.