The flood of signs encouraging the early church to hope for the imminent return of Christ did not cease when the apostolic era drew to a close. Throughout the first few centuries of church history, there were further signs, including the seven described below. These seven are especially interesting because they appeared after completion of the New Testament. Thus, like the modern signs we will study, they have come to light only as a result of consulting history as recorded in secular sources.


1. Destruction of Jerusalem


Other lessons deal at length with the two Old Testament prophecies that foretell the events in AD 70 (see The Holocaust in Psalm 69 and The Holocaust in Daniel 9). The same events are foretold also by several prophecies in the Gospels.

20 And when ye shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that the desolation thereof is nigh.

21 Then let them which are in Judaea flee to the mountains; and let them which are in the midst of it depart out; and let not them that are in the countries enter thereinto.

22 For these be the days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled.

23 But woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck, in those days! for there shall be great distress in the land, and wrath upon this people.

24 And they shall fall by the edge of the sword, and shall be led away captive into all nations: and Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled.

Luke 21:20-24

42 Saying, If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! but now they are hid from thine eyes.

43 For the days shall come upon thee, that thine enemies shall cast a trench about thee, and compass thee round, and keep thee in on every side,

44 And shall lay thee even with the ground, and thy children within thee; and they shall not leave in thee one stone upon another; because thou knewest not the time of thy visitation.

Luke 19:42-44

And Jesus said unto them, See ye not all these things? verily I say unto you, There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.

Matthew 24:2

28 But Jesus turning unto them said, Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children.

29 For, behold, the days are coming, in the which they shall say, Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bare, and the paps which never gave suck.

30 Then shall they begin to say to the mountains, Fall on us; and to the hills, Cover us.

31 For if they do these things in a green tree, what shall be done in the dry?

Luke 23:28-31

Notice that Jesus places the catastrophe in the next generation, for those who will primarily suffer will be the children of the present daughters of Jerusalem.

Josephus in his Wars of the Jews has left a detailed account of the war that brought about the fulfillment of these prophecies.


2. Dispersion of the Jews


In a text describing the gathering of Jews when Christ returns, Isaiah says,

And he shall set up an ensign for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.

Isaiah 11:12

If the Jews must be gathered then from places worldwide, it is evident that previously they will have been dispersed. According to Jesus, the dispersion would follow the war bringing destruction to Jerusalem and desolation to Palestine.

And they shall fall by the edge of the sword, and shall be led away captive into all nations: and Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled.

Luke 21:24

The defeat and dispersion predicted here came about as a result of the Jewish rebellion in AD 70.


3. Desolation of Palestine


Isaiah says elsewhere that in the period before the final restoration, Palestine would be virtually empty of people.

13 Upon the land of my people shall come up thorns and briers; yea, upon all the houses of joy in the joyous city:

14 Because the palaces shall be forsaken; the multitude of the city shall be left; the forts and towers shall be for dens for ever, a joy of wild asses, a pasture of flocks;

15 Until the spirit be poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness be a fruitful field, and the fruitful field be counted for a forest.

Isaiah 32:13-15

Much the same prediction is given also by the Psalmist, who ascribes the land's future fate to how its people mistreated their Messiah.

25 Let their habitation be desolate; and let none dwell in their tents.

26 For they persecute him whom thou hast smitten; and they talk to the grief of those whom thou hast wounded.

Psalm 69:25-26

Again, history confirms prophecy. Palestine was largely depopulated from AD 70 until late in the nineteenth century.


4. Initiation of the times of the gentiles


Prophecy marks the Jewish holocaust in AD 70 as the beginning of the era known as the times of the gentiles. A text quoted earlier is useful here as well.

And they shall fall by the edge of the sword, and shall be led away captive into all nations: and Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled.

Luke 21:1-24

During the long centuries when Palestine was desolate, relative to its thriving condition before AD 70 and again today, gentiles held authority over the land and its capital city, Jerusalem. In the Middle Ages, the Crusaders battled Muslims for control of the city, and in the modern era, the British wrested control from the Turks and held it until Jewish independence.


5. Growth of the church


One of the seven Parables of the Kingdom uses the figure of a mustard seed to describe the future growth of the church.

31 Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field:

32 Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof.

Matthew 13:31-32

In another lesson (see The Parable of the Mustard Seed), we show that the parable envisions a time when there would be more nominal adherents to Christianity than to any other religion.

The prophecy was fulfilled as soon as Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, a consequence of Constantine's conversion in AD 313.


6. Rise of Gnosticism


The New Testament clearly warns against the main heresies that would soon rise and imperil the church. The Book of 1 John contains foreshadowings of the heresy known as Gnosticism. For example,

1 Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.

2 Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God:

3 And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.

1 John 4:1-3

A central error of Gnosticism was its belief that anything fleshly is evil. This error bred denial that Jesus Christ became flesh.

The exact time when Gnosticism first entered the church is unknown, but by the second century, it had drawn away many people from the truth.


7. Rise of asceticism


A few centuries later, another heresy arose, having even more damaging effects. This was asceticism, the view that living close to God is possible only by denying all fleshly desires. The rise of asceticism was foreseen by Paul.

1 Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils;

2 Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron;

3 Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth.

1 Timothy 4:1-3

The prophecy indicates when the heresy would appear. It says, "in the latter times" (v. 1). This phrase, and the prediction associated with it, have often been applied to the end times, as if Paul were saying that the Last Days would bring a resurgence of asceticism. But the text quoted here is the only occasion when the New Testament uses the word translated "latter." The meaning of the word is simply "at a later time." The passages that clearly speak of our day use different terminology, identifying it not just as a later time but as the very last time. Furthermore, as we will show in subsequent lessons, Scripture teaches that the prevailing outlook in the last time would not be asceticism, but hedonism.

What Paul is foreseeing in 1 Timothy 4:1-3 is a development just a few centuries later in church history. He is anticipating the form of Christian asceticism that first arose and became fashionable in the early fourth century. At that time, there were many who decided that the way to achieve spiritual excellence was to flee into seclusion so that they might practice a more thorough self-denial. They had no spouses, indeed renounced marriage. They attempted to get along on as little food as possible and considered it meritorious to fast for long periods of time. Occasionally, they met with other people for worship, but their days were mostly spent either in meditation (sometimes accompanied by bizarre visions of angels and demons) or in some monotonous industry like basket weaving.

The new movement, centered in Egypt, soon absorbed thousands of people. At one time a traveler reported that there were more people pursuing a religious life in the desert than were living in the cities (1). But the movement spawned revolting extremes. "We read of hermits or anchorites grazing in the fields after the manner of animals, rolling naked in thorn bushes, or living in swamps infested with snakes" (2). St. Simeon Stylites passed a whole summer "as a rooted vegetable in a garden" (3), then began construction of his famous pillar. He built it to a height of sixty feet and spent the remaining thirty years of his life on top (4).

The extremes provoked a reaction. Some Christian leaders, desiring a milder alternative to a life of severe self-denial, invented a new kind of religious life that became known as monasticism. People interested in devoting themselves to God came together with others of the same mind and lived under the authority of an abbot and the discipline of a monastery. Yet monasticism, although less prone to excesses, was still ascetic in philosophy. In the east it followed the rule of St. Basil and in the west, of St. Benedict. Both rules enjoined celibacy. Both approved of fasting, though not in excess, and both laid out dietary restrictions. Under the rule of St. Benedict, the monks could drink wine (a concession that fostered drunkenness and debauchery), but could not eat meat. Their lives were circumscribed in many other ways as well. Before a man could enter a monastery, he had to give up his worldly possessions and take a vow of poverty. He then followed a regimen that denied any recreation, allowed few baths, and required him to spend many hours each day in silent religious meditation. In some monasteries, a rule of silence applied all day long.

The New Testament clearly warns against monasticism, as it does likewise against the other building blocks of Roman Catholicism. Monasticism and asceticism are perversions of Christianity.

Footnotes

  1. My record of the source has been lost. If you can tell me what it is, please do.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.