What is the sign of Christ’s return?


In Matthew 24:3, the disciples asked Christ three questions: “‘Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the SIGN of Your coming, and of the end of the age?'”

Christ had just spoken about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem (vv. 1-2). The disciples wanted to know more about the destruction of the temple, erroneously believing that that event would coincide with Christ’s return. As it turned out, the temple was destroyed in 70A.D., but Christ would not return for many years. Christ explained to them that there would have to occur first numerous significant events, before He would return.

In Mark 13:4, the disciples are quoted as asking, “‘Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the SIGN when all these things will be fulfilled?'”

Both in the accounts of Matthew and of Mark, Christ pointed out that the preaching of the gospel in all the world and to all nations must proceed His coming and the end of the age. He said in Matthew 24:14, “And this gospel of the kingdom WILL BE preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.” He is quoted as saying in Mark 13:10, “And the gospel must first be preached to all the nations.”

That the preaching of the gospel of the Kingdom of God in all the world was given as a SIGN for Christ’s return, shows that this gospel had NOT been preached to the world for a long time. Of course, “a” gospel was preached – the gospel “about” Christ – but not the gospel OF Christ about the Kingdom of God!

As stated above, the disciples had asked Christ for the “SIGN” of His coming. The Greek word for “SIGN” is “semeion.” It conveys the meaning of “signal” (Young’s Analytical Concordance to the Bible) or “indication” (W.E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words). It can also convey the meaning of “miracle” or “wonder” (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible).

For instance, the unbelieving Jews at Christ’s time – called by Christ “a wicked and adulterous generation” (Matthew 16:4 )- were only given the “SIGN of Jonah” that Christ was the Messiah. As Jonah became a SIGN to the Ninevites (Luke 11:30), being three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so Christ would become a SIGN to the Jews of His time, being three days and three nights (72 hours) in the grave (Matthew 12:39-40). Tragically, orthodox Christianity has rejected the ONLY sign that Christ gave to the Jews, proving His Messiahship. Many professing Christians falsely claim that Christ was only in the grave from Friday evening to Sunday morning – much less than 72 hours. They have thereby rejected Jesus Christ – the only name through which man can be saved (Acts 4:12). For a thorough discussion of the “Sign of Jonah,” please read our Q&A in Update #99.

In addition, an angel gave the shepherds in the field a SIGN that Christ had been born – they would see “a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12).

These SIGNS were to prove to the people at the time of Christ that the Messiah was born – that Christ was the long-awaited Messiah. In the same way, the fact that the true gospel of the KINGDOM OF GOD is being preached in all the world as a witness or testimony -for instance through the tool of the printing press and the Internet – is a SIGN today, to those with understanding (Daniel 12:10), that Christ’s return is imminent. It is an undeniable fact that the true gospel of the Kingdom of God was being preached to the world during the lifetime of Herbert W. Armstrong. It is likewise an undeniable fact that Mr. Armstrong died in 1986, and that Christ has not yet returned. This means, then, that God’s Church has the continued obligation to preach the gospel in all the world as a witness. Christ made it very clear that the gospel would still be preached at the time of His return. He told His disciples in Matthew 28:19-20 that He would be with them “always, even to the END of the age,” while they were “making disciples of all the nations” (a logical consequence of the Church’s preaching the gospel in all the world, compare Romans 10:14-15). Christ also said that those who would be doing God’s Work of preaching His gospel would not have finished it, even in the cities of Israel, when He returns (Matthew 10:23).

Christ told His servants that they must not be unprofitable, but that they must be found DOING the Work of God, when Christ returns (Matthew 24:46; James 1:25). If they were to refuse to preach the gospel, although possessing the means to do so, and if they were falsely believing and proclaiming the Work to be over, they would be held accountable by Christ. Some think today that they need to save their money to be able to buy plane tickets to fly to the place of safety. With that egoistic and self-centered attitude, they WILL NOT BE counted worthy to be brought to the place of safety (Luke 21:36)!

In addition to the SIGN of seeing the true gospel being preached in all the world, Christ spoke about “great SIGNS from heaven” (Luke 21:11). This is a reference to the “heavenly signs,” mentioned in Revelation 6:12-17, following the Great Tribulation and immediately preceding the Day of the Lord (which will begin 1 year before Christ’s return). The Great Tribulation, spoken of in many Biblical passages, describes national captivity of the modern houses of Israel and Judah (the Commonwealth nations and the USA, as well as the modern Jews) and a martyrdom of many of the saints (Revelation 6:9-11).

Christ mentioned that at that time, there would be “SIGNS in the sun, in the moon, and in the stars; and on the earth distress of nations, with perplexity, the sea and the waves roaring; men’s hearts failing them from fear and the expectation of those things which are coming on the earth, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (Luke 21:25-26). Notice the immediate context of these events: “Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to happen, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near” (vv. 27-28).

We see, then, that the “heavenly signs” are also an indication for the imminence of Christ’s return, as they signal the beginning of the Day of the Lord – God’s rule over man. Christ elaborated in Matthew 24:29-30:

“Immediately after the [great] tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then the SIGN of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.”

If this SIGN is different from the “heavenly signs,” mentioned earlier, what, then, is it? It might perhaps be referred to in Revelation 15:1, which states, “Then I saw another SIGN in heaven, great and marvelous.” This sign points at the pouring out of the seven last plagues, after the Day of the Lord has begun, completing the wrath of God. Some of these plagues will be poured out immediately FOLLOWING Christ’s return. However, the Bible does not say what exactly the “SIGN of the Son of Man” of Matthew 24:30 is. Some have suggested that it may refer to Christ Himself appearing in heaven. The Broadman Bible Commentary states, “The sign of the Son of man is of unknown meaning, although it is more directly related to Jesus than are the astronomical signs. The Greek genitive allows for the idea that the Son of man is himself the sign, i.e., ‘the sign, which is the Son of man.'”

If so, this would prove HOW Christ returns; that is, visibly, not in secret (see discussion below). On the other hand, this SIGN of the Son of Man could not be the one given in answer to the disciples’ question what the SIGN of His return and the end of the age would be. Christ obviously did not say, “The sign of My return is My return.” Rather, He clearly gave as the sign of His immediate return the ongoing preaching of His true gospel in all the world, while additional events would occur (including, for example, the rise of a political/military/economic/religious power bloc in Europe, as the tenth and last resurrection of the ancient Holy Roman Empire; a war in the Middle East; a military attack on the United States of America, Great Britain, and the state of Israel; and cosmic signs or disturbances).

Referring to that very time, Christ warned His disciples not to be deceived by false SIGNS or miracles and wonders. He said that during the time of the Great Tribulation, beginning perhaps just before that time, “false christs and false prophets will rise and show great SIGNS and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect” (Matthew 24:24). Their deception will include the false teaching that Christ has returned, waiting to meet His disciples “in the desert” (v. 26). In other words, they will preach a version of the “secret rapture” theory, claiming that Christ will return twice – first, to take His disciples to Himself, and second, to restore God’s Kingdom on this earth. “False,” Christ said. “Don’t believe those false teachings,” He warned. Rather, “… as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, SO ALSO WILL THE COMING of the Son of Man be” (verse 27).

Christ warned that just prior to His return, “the man of sin” would be revealed (2 Thessalonians 2:3). This person is elsewhere identified as the “false prophet.” He will be alive at Christ’s return, and Christ will “consume [him] with the breath of His mouth” (v. 8). This man of sin, also called the “lawless one,” will be given Satan’s powers, “with all… SIGNS and lying wonders” (v. 9). The book of Revelation tells us that this “false prophet” will deceive people with his signs. We read in Revelation 13:14: “And he deceives those who dwell on the earth by those SIGNS which he was granted to do in the sight of the beast.” We are told, too, in Revelation 19:20 that “the beast was captured, and with him the false prophet who worked SIGNS in his presence, by which he deceived…”

We see, then, that the power to work SIGNS or miracles is NOT necessarily a proof that God is with that person. Some want desperately to receive power to work signs and miracles – like Simon Magus, who offered Peter money to receive the power to bestow the Holy Spirit on others through the laying on of his hands (Acts 8:18-19). Peter told him, though, that his “heart” was not “right in the sight of God” (v. 21), and that he needed to repent (v. 22). The historical record shows that he did not repent, but that he continued to perform his sorceries (v. 9), thereby deceiving many people. Christ warned that in the end time, just preceding His coming, “false prophets” or “preachers” (not just THE false prophet) would appear, deceiving “many” with false signs and wonders. If possible, Christ said, they would even deceive the “elect.”

Christ told us not to fall asleep or to give up. He said that only those who endure until the end shall be saved (Matthew 24:13). Rather than concentrating on signs and wonders, we must make sure that we will be READY when Christ returns, for He will come at an hour we do not expect (compare Matthew 24:44).

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