We saw in earlier lessons that many signs appeared to the church during the early centuries. And in another lesson we saw that since 1800, signs have appeared again and have become especially numerous in just the last fifty years. It is curious that signs are missing from history between about A.D. 400 and A.D. 1800. So, in these long middle centuries there are no prophecies fulfilled and no signs of the times, whereas at the beginning of the church history there was a cluster of signs, and again in our time there has been a cluster of signs.

Why? Because the early centuries and the latter centuries have been the two times of great expansion for the church. In its infancy the church spread like wildfire despite fierce opposition by the Roman government. Countless believers were martyred, yet the church thrived. The modern era has been the period of extraordinary missionary enterprise, taking the gospel to all nations. For the first time in history, the church has carried out Jesus' command to spread the gospel to the uttermost part of the earth.

Signs have been abundant during these times of expansion because the Lord knew that a sense of His imminent return stimulates the church to greater zeal and activity. The consciousness that Christ is coming soon is a great motivator to get busy in the Lord's work. The tremendous growth in the early centuries and again in the last two centuries was in part a response to signs of the times.

What has happened conforms to prophecy. The Bible strongly implies that expansion in the church would be mainly confined to two historical periods.

7 Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain.

8 Be ye also patient; stablish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh.

9 Grudge not one against another, brethren, lest ye be condemned: behold, the judge standeth before the door.

James 5:7-9

This is a highly significant text for three reasons:

  1. It is like several we considered earlier indicating that Christ would return only after some delay. James compares Him to a husbandman who wants to harvest the fruit of his garden, but He does not come for it immediately. Rather, he waits with long patience until the fruit is ready.
  2. It says that the fruit will not be ready for His return until it has received the early and latter rain. The rain probably refers to the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus likened to living water (John 7:37-39). However we interpret the rain, it is indisputable that the effect of rain is to spur growth. So, James is clearly saying that the Church Age would continue until there is a final period of growth to balance the growth at the beginning.
  3. It tells us what will happen after the latter rain. The waiting will be over and the husbandman will come. Where do we stand in history? In the worldwide evangelism of the last two centuries, we have seen the latter rain. The rain has fallen for generations, but now it is subsiding. Missionary work is being scaled back. The churches in many countries are at some stage of drift into apostasy.

So, by probing the depths of James's seemingly simple exhortation, we have discovered a double sign that the Lord's return is near: first, that the latter rain has fallen; second, that it is stopping.